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Onyx reviews: Restitution by Lee Vance

Anyone who reads the newspapers or watches the news has seen Peter Tyler before—the arrogant, wealthy former star athlete in an unhappy marriage who decides that a divorce would be too expensive so he hires someone to murder his wife and loudly proclaims his innocence.

However, readers of Lee Vance's debut novel Restitution are blessed with insight the general populace doesn't normally get—Peter is innocent and as baffled about his wife's murder as the police are.

Peter lives in the stratosphere of Wall Street finance. When he pushes around pieces of paper, millions of dollars follow. His work takes him regularly to exotic places like Tokyo, Helsinki and Frankfurt—and away from his wife, Jenna.

Peter and Jenna's relationship was never easy. When they met in college, Jenna immediately identified him as the kind of person who was "on an express train headed straight for corporate America and the suburbs…and thirty-six holes of golf every weekend at the country club"—all the things she didn't want, in other words. He won her over, but she never seemed completely comfortable with their fundamental philosophical differences.

She was as devoted to her career as a pro bono lawyer for the underprivileged as he was to his, which meant they put off having children. Then, when the timing seemed better, Jenna developed fertility problems. Peter was always willing to have her try the next great experimental treatment because he considered the alternative unacceptable. Jenna has her heart set on adopting a special needs child. Having survived a difficult childhood—a rigid father who stayed with his alcoholic mother only because of Peter—he has no desire to take on hardship as a regular component of his family life again.

This standoff defined the status of their relationship when Jenna was murdered in what appeared to be a staged burglary. The unethical cop leading the investigation thinks Peter was staying away from home because of the affair Jenna uncovered—a one-night stand with someone Peter cares deeply about. Vance doesn't try very hard to keep the identity of Peter's lover secret from his readers…but Peter doesn't want the police to know who she is, even though it makes him seem guilty. Guiltier.

Jenna's parents are so convinced that Peter arranged their daughter's murder that they won't allow him to attend her funeral. The tabloids crucify him. The negative publicity causes his employers at Klein and Klein to place him on indefinite leave. His assets are frozen.

Peter's finds himself in a situation similar to that of the main character in many Hitchcock movies—or Grisham's The Firm: an innocent man who needs to solve the case on his own to save his life and his reputation, and he needs to do it fast. The cops—even the reputable ones—have him pegged as the killer and see no need to investigate further.

The only clue to the identity of the murderers is a package delivered to Peter's house that is missing after Jenna's death. The package was sent by Andrei Zhilina, Peter's best friend. Andrei, a lover of the writings of Tolstoy, works for a financial firm in Moscow, but he seems to have dropped off the face of the planet. Obsessed by the missing package, Peter travels to Russia to track down his friend. While he's there, he gets caught up in another mystery. Andrei has been keeping secret accounting ledgers and is involved with an AIDS clinic run by an uncooperative American doctor. His covert dealing is eerily reminiscent of the recent fraud case at the Société Générale Bank in France. 

During the course of his amateurish investigation Peter runs afoul of the Russian mob, the NYPD, Homeland Security and private security for ruthless financiers. For most of the second half of the novel, Peter is the punching bag for just about everyone he encounters. The machinations of multinational finance and pharmaceutical businesses, the threat of biological weapons, forged stock certificates, and missing Nazi art all compound the mystery. Every time Peter thinks he's uncovered another piece of the puzzle, the picture changes. Reversal upon reversal makes for a profoundly satisfying conclusion.

The only part of the story that strains credibility is the latitude the NYPD afford him. He is allowed to leave the country without restriction, and when he returns, the police permit him to continue his investigation despite the mounting number of bodies. One sympathetic police officer isn't enough to account for this freedom—it is required by the plot, which is never a good explanation for something incredible.

Peter's only true allies are Katya, Andrei's twin sister, and Tigger, his former coworker, one of the old guard of financiers who worked his way up through the ranks without benefit of a business education. Their exchanges form some of the novel's nicest scenes.

Restitution is a fast-paced thriller—the pace accelerated by the author's use of the present tense for the contemporary action—but it isn't mindless. For one thing, Vance is a retired general partner from the Goldman Sachs Group and did business with their office in Moscow, so he knows a lot about the complexities of dealing in the former Soviet empire. Over the course of the novel, he doles out an ample serving of financial lore. The convoluted plot requires close attention and a head for numbers, but readers who pay close attention will be rewarded with a highly satisfactory reading experience.

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