There’s the thrill that comes in discovering a terrific new mystery writer, and then there’s the thrill that comes in discovering a terrific new — and different — mystery novel written by an already acknowledged master.
Reed Farrel Coleman has been a big macher on the mean streets of hard-boiled detective fiction for a couple of decades now. He has created standalone novels and several series, foremost among them the acclaimed Moe Prager books featuring a Jewish ex-cop in 1980s New York, whose cases have led him into the shadow side of Coney Island and the Catskills. Most recently, Coleman has tackled the tricky assignment of continuing the late Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone series. Heretical though it may be, I think Coleman has not only captured Parker’s worldview and terse rhythms but has given that series a much needed boost by complicating Stone’s (already neurotic) character and coming up with more intricate cases for him to solve.
Coleman is a busy guy, but like many of the best mystery and suspense writers (Grisham, Scottoline, Silva, Connelly, to name but a few) he seems to thrive on deadlines rather than downtime. Which leads us to his superb new novel, “Where It Hurts,” the first in what promises to be another standout series.
“Where It Hurts” sticks close to the hard-boiled formula, yet in Coleman’s hands, all the standard elements seem as radiant and new as a freshly peroxided blonde. The main character, Gus Murphy, is yet another middle-aged ex-cop who’s been chewed up and spat out by life. When his teenage son dies suddenly, Gus’s marriage falls apart and he sinks into depression. Seeking numbness as a survival strategy, Gus lands a job at the Paragon Hotel (“a paragon of nothing so much as proximity, proximity to Long Island MacArthur Airport”) where, in exchange for a paycheck and a room, he drives the courtesy van and works security at the dreary joint. “The Paragon wasn’t the kind of place with bridal or presidential suites. It wasn’t the kind of place with suites at all,” Gus says. “No one came here to be pampered or to have free wine at five or complimentary continental breakfast in the morning. People came here to leave.”
Perhaps not since F. Scott Fitzgerald surveyed the Valley of Ashes has a writer so evocatively nailed the peculiar deadness of certain stretches of Long Island that fortunate commuters pass through on the way to better places.
Early one morning, Gus is roused from his room at the Paragon by a phone call from the lobby: A man is waiting for him in the hotel’s airplane-themed “Runway coffee shop.” The mystery caller turns out to be Tommy Delcamino, “Tommy D.” — a small-time drug dealer and thief whom Gus, in his days on the force, arrested many times. A few months earlier, Tommy’s son, T.J., was murdered — his body burned and then dumped in a garbage-strewn vacant lot. In their meeting, Tommy D. offers Gus a roll of cash to ask around and find out why T.J.’s murder is such low priority for the police.
Gus responds by exploding in white-hot rage. He suspects Tommy D. of trying to manipulate him because they’re both grieving fathers. But, as days pass, Gus finds that he can’t forget the image of Tommy D’s wrecked face — a mirror image of his own. Soon enough, Gus is driving all over “the Island,” seeking out cops and criminals who might know something about T.J.’s murder. Among other Long Island waste places, Gus snoops around a salvage yard run by the mob, a second-rate catering hall done up to resemble a Tuscan villa, and a “losers’ bar” presided over by a bartender covered with so many tattoos, he “looked like a ’70s subway car.” Along the way, Gus not only stirs up more violence, but also stirs himself back to life.
“Where It Hurts” is one of those evocative mysteries that readers will remember as much for its charged sense of place as for any of its other considerable virtues. The apparently tireless Coleman — who himself lives on Long Island — draws on loads of flashy local color. After all, as Gus tells us: “Outsiders don’t get Long Island, most New Yorkers don’t understand it. They can’t see past the beaches and the sound, the Hamptons and the Gold Coast, the country clubs and the marinas. . . . What off-islanders see is the 24-karat gilding along the edges where the money flows, not the fool’s gold in the middle.”
Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”
By Reed Farrel Coleman
G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 368pp. $26.95