Interviews with author Irene Marcuse

NEWSDAY Sunday, Sept. 3, 2000 - Page B 11


The Sympathetic Sleuth

By Andrew O'Hehir. Andrew O'Hehir is a writer in New York.

IRENE MARCUSE loves her neighborhood, the northern fringe of Manhattan's Upper West Side known as Morningside Heights. But in an age of ever-spreading gentrification and New York City's booming real estate market, she can't help feeling that she, her husband and their 13-year-old daughter are lucky to live there. "We're just clinging on here," she laughs. Like many of the newly upscale neighborhood's longtime residents, Marcuse's family was essentially grandfathered in; they live in a cramped apartment her parents bought some 25 years ago. "We have a lifestyle that you couldn't come into New York and have now," she reflects ruefully.

A talkative, unpretentious 47-year-old with a ready laugh and a shock of ashen hair atop her diminutive frame, Marcuse could be an academic, a writer or a social worker-and over the course of her 15 years in Morningside Heights, she's been all three. She has just published her first mystery novel, The Death of an Amiable Child (Walker & Co., $23.95), an affectionate tribute both to her neighborhood's remarkable diversity and to the older people she came to know during her career in social work.

Marcuse says she has wanted to write ever since she read "The Cat in the Hat" as a child. Her path to the profession, however, has been somewhat circuitous. Perhaps that's understandable: As the granddaughter of the illustrious philosopher Herbert Marcuse and daughter of Peter Marcuse, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University, she's had a daunting intellectual legacy to live up to. Since her teenage years in Berkeley, Calif., where she joined in the legendary People's Park riots of 1970, Marcuse has been through a failed first marriage and a varied list of jobs, from long-distance operator to wallpaper hanger to bartender and waitress.

Now, 15 years after moving to New York to pursue a social work degree, Marcuse has finally fulfilled that Seussian dream. She feels some ambivalence about exploiting her distinctive last name, saying she "had a fit" when she noticed how prominently the book-jacket bio mentions her grandfather. "I really want the book to sink or swim on its own," she explains. "But, frankly, there is some name recognition there, this is a tough field to get into and it was instrumental in getting an agent." (In her non-writing life, she goes by her married name, Irene Silver.) Anita Servi, the narrator of "The Death of an Amiable Child," works for a senior services agency run by the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. (Her creator worked for four years at a similar job in a six-building apartment complex with many older residents.) When Lillian Raines, an older homeless woman who sometimes sleeps on the landing of Anita's building, is found dead, Anita discovers that she was a former agency client who told contradictory stories about her past. While the police are eager to classify Lillian's death as an accident - and keep crime statistics down - Anita has her doubts.

She proves to be a tough-minded and resourceful sleuth, skilled in approaching isolated older people and socially marginal characters who don't trust the police. As she puts it: "After all, who would you rather talk to, a social worker or a cop?" Potential suspects abound in "The Death of an Amiable Child": greedy neighbors obsessed with property values, a conniving building manager, a sexy younger woman who may be preying on vulnerable seniors. But to solve the mystery of Lillian's death, Anita must try to understand Lillian's life, and why she liked to visit Riverside Park's obscure memorial to the "Amiable Child," a 5-year-old who drowned nearby-in 1797.

Marcuse marshals an appealing cast of multiracial, multigenerational characters, but perhaps the most striking aspect of "The Death of an Amiable Child" is the stark realism she brings to her accounts of Anita's work. As the book makes clear, working with the elderly can be rewarding, but it is not a feel-good, Hallmark-card career; it's full of irritations, indignities and tragedies, sometimes all at once. In an extraordinarily detailed and wrenching scene, Anita sees one of her clients-a nettlesome woman she hadn't especially liked - lying naked on the floor of her apartment as paramedics make a futile effort to save her life. Anita reflects, "If she hadn't already been dead, awareness of her present state would have killed her." This disturbing incident is nearly identical to one she witnessed on the job, Marcuse says.

"When I read mysteries, there's so much that's unrealistic," she continues. "You know, the hero who doesn't eat, doesn't sleep, doesn't pee, and jumps up from the hospital bed after 10 broken bones and a concussion, saying, 'Oh, I'm fine.' So I wanted to be realistic, and to show how this stuff could happen within an ordinary life. One of the criticisms I got was that too many people die, that that wouldn't really happen in this neighborhood. Well, there were weeks when we might have two or three older people die, just in our complex. As Michael says in the book, old people die."

Another important goal in the Anita Servi series, Marcuse says (a second novel is already in the works), is to discuss "how black people, white people, Hispanic people and Asian people relate, just on a day-to-day level." In fact, she has a test case of sorts in her own home: Like Anita and Benno Servi in the novel, Irene and Philip Silver have a black daughter. Interracial adoption is sometimes seen as a controversial issue, but the family Marcuse presents in "The Death of an Amiable Child" is an ordinary one with ordinary problems and joys, even if they must sometimes deal with the outside world's curiosity or incomprehension.

Marcuse's focus on social and political topics may be more concrete than that found in her grandfather's philosophical works, but this is where she feels his influence most. "Our family has always been left, or at least liberal," she says. "That's been an influence on my life all the way through, from my grandfather to my father to my brothers." Even when reading mysteries, she says, "I really go for books that deal with different cultures, with social issues. I like to learn something." And how would the author of such influential texts as "One-Dimensional Man" and "Eros and Civilization" react to Anita Servi, the amateur sleuth of 111th Street? "My grandfather liked mysteries," Marcuse says, laughing. "I'm sure he would be pleased."


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