Writing for television can be challenging and lucrative, but there are limits to how deep one can venture into the unpleasant realities of crime. In novels there are fewer limits. With his new book, “Sunrise Highway,” Peter Blauner — a former writer and producer for “Law & Order” and the author of seven novels — makes that clear. “Sunrise Highway” is often an ugly tale, but Blauner set out to tell a brutally honest story, and he has done so with exceptional skill.
The novel pits an intrepid NYPD detective, Lourdes Robles, against a Long Island police chief, Joey Tolliver, who is also a psychopath, rapist and serial killer. It is even in part a political novel in that Tolliver is protected by a friend he helped win election as the local district attorney and another pal who winds up in Congress. In this story, criminality loves company.
The story begins in 1977 when Joey Tolliver was 17 and living on Long Island: He and a pal — the future D.A. — strangled a girl of 15 lest she charge them with rape. A friendly cop tells Tolliver how to avoid a murder charge. Tolliver simply swears he saw another youth — Delaney Patterson, the star quarterback on the high school football team — leaving the murder scene. Given Tolliver’s planned perjury, and the possibility a white jury would give a black youth a life sentence, Patterson bitterly agrees to accept his lawyer’s advice and plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of 35 years. Later in the book, Blauner provides a brief, poignant scene in which we meet Patterson, in his 50s, after he has finally been released.
Tolliver, grasping the possibilities of police work, joins the department and soon is pulling over young women who are driving alone at night in isolated areas, then raping and killing them. Sometimes he leaves their bodies along the titular Sunrise Highway, which runs the length of Long Island and nicely echoes Sunset Boulevard, a continent away in Los Angeles.
As Tolliver moves up in rank he decides he needs a wife and family to complete the picture of a chief of police. One night he is called to an expensive home where a drunk with a gun is threatening to kill himself. After telling the man’s attractive wife to leave the room, Tolliver asks the man how much insurance he has. A million dollars’ worth, the befuddled husband replies, whereupon Tolliver decides to kill him (in self-defense of course), win the wife and move into the house.
Although we are told Tolliver had an abusive father, he seems simply a born psychopath. That thought troubles him. When he is debating the fate of a young woman he is holding prisoner, he tries to convince himself “he was more than the Gacys and the Zodiacs of the world.” But he is not.
Enter our hero, detective Lourdes Robles, who first appeared in last year’s excellent “Proving Ground.” The spirited Latina cop is angry about the widespread piggishness of her male colleagues, most of whom are far less skilled than she at solving crimes. In August 2017, Robles is summoned to view the remains of a woman found “on an inlet dividing New York City on her side and Long Island on the other.” She is assigned to a team investigating the possibility a serial killer is at large in both jurisdictions. This brings her into Joey Tolliver’s territory and he soon views her as a threat — and he has already killed two female investigators who asked too many questions.
The story moves back and forth in time as Tolliver kills women over a 40-year period. Along the way, readers may learn a lot about Long Island. Robles reflects that it is not like her native Brooklyn, where the “sidewalks were filthy and criminals were as free and rampant as the rats in the garbage strewn gutters. This was the Island. Where decent people went to escape.” But someone like Joey Tolliver can corrupt even the most upstanding communities. With him, Peter Blauner has created one of most the memorable psychopaths since Hannibal Lecter.
Patrick Anderson reviews thrillers and mysteries regularly for The Washington Post.
By Peter Blauner
Minotaur. 338 pp. $27.99