The first thing I look for in a mystery is a well-crafted character; I find this in the works of the greats: Raymond Chandler, James Lee Burke and Walter Mosley. The second is a believable and absorbing atmosphere; again, one finds these in abundance in the works of these writers.
Karen Rose Cercone is now another author I can add to the list. "Steel Ashes" is a wonderful book, and its sequel is even better. As a professional social worker who works with the poor, it is very gratifying for me to see a heroine who is also a social worker (something she denies in the book's sequel, but is nonetheless) at the very dawn of the social work profession. In the character of Helen Sorby, Cercone has crafted a heroine who is admirable and very real; not a few readers will, I suspect, fall head over heals for her.
The book's context illustrates the injustices of industrialism at the beginning of the twentieth century, reminding us that economic change (with which we are always contending) always brings with it human suffering. By placing the action in a time when few people believed that such suffering should be alleviated by the government (much like our own time), Cercone is able demonstrate the misery that occurs when such inaction is tolerated. These are the kind of injustices that brave reformers like Helen will not tolerate.
Helen's idealism is tempered by the worldly-wise Milo, a policeman who has had to conceal his Armenian heritage in order to become a cop. Milo is, like Helen, a victim of the prejudice of society; but like her, he refuses to be content with whining about it as an excuse for inaction. Even so, the differing responses of the two protagonists -- and their irresistable attraction to each other -- are what give the series its dramatic tension. The fact that then, as now, the book highlights very real and very current social problems is what makes it, like the work of Burke and Mosley and Chandler, more than just another mystery.