Murder in the heart of Palo Alto | September 6, 2006 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

- September 6, 2006

Murder in the heart of Palo Alto

Local writer spins a mystery tale

by Lora Roberts

dot.dead: A Silicon Valley Mystery," by Keith Raffel; Midnight Ink; 288 pp.; $13.95

Ian Michaels is having a bad week.

Unable to face a sales presentation with mismatched socks (he'd put on one brown one and one blue one by mistake that morning), he stops by his Palo Alto bungalow to change, and no sooner opens the door than he's coshed over the head and whapped in the face by an unknown assailant.

But that's not the worst thing that can happen to poor Ian, vice president of marketing for Accelnet, a hotshot full-motion video conferencing company poised for the big-time.

No, worse than being mugged in his own front hall is to come home unexpectedly after lunch the next day and find Gwendolyn Goldberg, the new maid, dead on his bed. Worst of all, Ian is soon arrested for murder, although he had never met Gwen since hiring her from a service, and thought she was a motherly, middle-aged type based on her spidery handwriting and the cookies she left for him. But since she was actually a young, gorgeous Stanford student, Ian's protestations of not knowing her sound empty to Palo Alto's finest.

Dot.dead, by local entrepreneur and Siebel vice president Keith Raffel, takes us into the boardrooms and bedrooms of the Silicon Valley power set.

Ian downplays his own importance as a major player, but such modesty is for naught-- while his personal world implodes during the investigation of the maid's death, the upward trajectory of his career seems to be on the line as well.

His mentor, Paul Berk, owner of Accelnet, repudiates Ian's vision for the company, and the board -- as always -- is swayed by Paul.

Meanwhile, Paul's wife, Kathy <0x2014> the woman Ian has secretly held up as his ideal <0x2014> not only leaves Paul, but makes advances to Ian, advances he must reject out of loyalty.

And the nice old lady across the street who has told the police she saw Ian return from work around noon, about the time of the murder, is no longer speaking to him. Clearly, he's in trouble.

Raffel has a good time with Palo Alto and surroundings. Ian offers his guests Kona coffee from Peet's (although he himself is a tea drinker), jogs at the Dish and at Foothills Park, and lives on Lincoln; even his doctor has a Palo Alto-correct phone prefix of 321.

When his high-powered attorney mentions her fee, Ian thinks, "I had a nest egg from selling my Berk Technology stock, but at those rates it would melt away faster than the NASDAQ index in the winter of 2001-02."

Ian is a native, born and raised in the valley, a Paly graduate who remembers the apricot orchards and horse trails of an earlier era. Obviously attracted to the ladies, he's been a commitment-phobe, turning away from intimacy with anyone who wants to get close.

But now he finds himself fascinated with the dead Gwendolyn, who had evidently been romantically attached to a man she'd never dated: him.

The police find that she had used his name as the password on her computer, and that someone had taken her picture looking very at home in his back yard. She'd even told her friends she was contemplating a relationship with him.

Now Gwendolyn is dead, but her sister Rowena joins Ian in trying to find a more likely killer than himself. Rowena has entanglements of her own with one of Gwen's ex-boyfriends, who was in the neighborhood when Gwen was killed. And body parts are found at Foothills Park <0x2014> another victim, or the perpetrator?

Raffel, a first-time novelist, skates lightly over the areas that might impact a reader's willing suspension of disbelief. Coincidences are thick on the ground; the prosecutor who excuses Ian from jury duty, thereby removing a potential alibi for the time of the murder, happens to join an exclusive law firm just in time to represent him when he's threatened with arrest.

Though they live in LA, both Rowena and Gwen's ex-boyfriend happen to have been in Palo Alto around the time of the murder. And even though the police have egg on their face from a premature arrest, and are described as trying to build a really solid case before making another mive, they go right ahead and arrest someone on the thinnest possible evidence.

However, the characters are well-drawn, even the women, which can be a problem for a first-time male writer. Ian's quest for the truth follows a long tradition of the amateur sleuth, suspected of a crime, but able to ferret out clues that have eluded the police simply by knowing the ground.

Raffel definitely knows the local ground, and conveys a sense of Palo Alto that all who live here will find entertaining and familiar.

"We drove by houses with Moorish tile roofs and stucco facades. We traveled down Waverley Street, leopard-spotted by the late afternoon sun shining through tree boughs," Ian says.

Though his story doesn't turn on technology, Raffel offers an insider viewpoint on the siliconization of the Valley of Heart's Delight. Those who don't live here can enjoy the mystery and the sense of place. Those who do live here will enjoy a drive past many familiar places on their way to solving the crime.

Author Keith Raffel will appear at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 20.

Lora Roberts is a Palo Alto mystery writer whose latest novel is "The Affair of the Incognito Tenant: A Mystery with Sherlock Holmes."

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