Michael Kahn weaves engrossing mystery in ‘The Sirena Quest’

Michael Kahn photo: Michael Eastman

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Full disclosure: I am an unapologetic fan of the mystery novels of St. Louis lawyer and novelist Michael A. Kahn, from his first, “The Canaan Legacy” (later retitled “Grave Designs”) up to his latest, “The Sirena Quest” (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95), which ranks right up there with the best of his work.

A graduate of Amherst College and Harvard Law School, Kahn is a busy lawyer, husband, father and grandfather, and yet he manages to publish a novel almost every year. He sets a goal of finishing at least one page per day so that by year’s end, he has enough for an engaging mystery novel, often featuring protagonist Rachel Gold, a Jewish St. Louis lawyer and graduate of University City High School. 

With impressive deftness, Kahn convincingly see things through the eyes of Gold, who has a Lois Lane tendency to get involved in solving mysteries, usually with the help of her  colleague, Benny Goldberg. 

With “The Sirena Quest,” Kahn has published 11 mystery novels, all but one in his Rachel Gold series. While she is not the central focus of “The Sirena Quest,” Gold has a brief cameo appearance when she meets with four former college roommates from Barrett College, class of 1974, at the New England school.

The Sirena of the title is a Greco-Roman sculpture, a 193-pound statue that was a bronze mascot or signature icon to the college. Sirena of course had been a tempting target for pranksters through the decades. When one of the pranks wenthorribly wrong, resulting in a bloody accident that claimed the lives of two Barrett students, university president Henry Washburn arranged for the statue to be hidden away in a top secret location known only to himself with instructions that its location never be revealed, and so Sirena vanished without a trace —  a disappearance that only added mystique to the iconic idol. 

Louis Solomon, a 1974 graduate and St. Louis lawyer, gathers his former roommates and closest Barrett College friends in a quest to find Sirena and restore her to her long vacant pedestal. Another alumnus, a hedge-fund billionaire, has issued a challenge: He will contribute a $25 million endowment to the college, plus a $3 million purse to he finders, if she is found and returned by the June 17, 1994, commencement. 

That date coincides with the 20th reunion of Solomon and his three former roommates, who called themselves the James Gang after the dorm in which they lived during their freshman year.                                 

In addition to Solomon, a widowed, Jewish father of two who is still weighed down by grief over the loss of his wife, the foursome include Ray Gorman of San Diego, who had been an outlaw hippie back in his college days but who later became a shopping mall millionaire; Gordie Cohen, an aspiring screenwriter who became a successful advertising executive, and William “Bronco Billy” McCormick, who got his nickname from a drunken confession that he wanted to become a rodeo star but who ended up becoming a successful teacher at a Chicago middle school.

Kahn fleshes out each of the major characters, providing interesting back stories to explain their individual motives for wanting to find the missing Sirena statue before their snobbish prep school classmates Reggie Pelham and Frank Burke. 

The action switches back and forth from the present in 1994 to Barrett College days of 1970-74. Among the most amusing and endearing flashbacks is a look-back at Solomon and Gorman when the two of them “were quite a pair” at work in the college dining hall: 

“Wearing their white cotton jackets, they’d work the evening meal as a two-man team, pushing that car up and down the dining hall, clearing the tables one by one – scraping and stacking the plates and emptying and racking the glasses, sorting and standing the silverware in baskets. A long time ago.”

Early in their search, the foursome meet with Rachel Gold, then a young lawyer working for a large Chicago law firm, who provides some helpful information to the seekers of Sirena.

To describe “The Sirena Quest” as a page turner is not an exaggeration. The action moves along briskly, and the reader gets caught up in rooting for the James Gang to find, secure and deliver Sirena before the obnoxious Reggie and Frank can outsmart them. There are some hair-raising scenes and many laugh-out-loud situations that ring entirely true.

Kahn shows a real gift for writing an engaging and fast-moving story that is likely to keep readers captivated.

Michael Kahn, author event 

When:  7 p.m.  Thursday, Jan. 29

Where:  St. Louis County Library Headquarters, 1640 S. Lindbergh Boulevard

How much:  Free

More info:  Doors open at 6 p.m. Seating is limited; early arrival is recommended. Visit slcl.org/authors for more information