Written by Reed Farrel Coleman — Coleman’s Moe Prager series of novels brought him considerable critical acclaim. The James Deans alone won the Anthony, Barry, and Shamus Awards as well as being a finalist in others. His writing is hardboiled for sure, but goes beyond genre into literary territory with the author not afraid to explore themes over a series of books. Now we have the beginning of a new series, and Coleman has again pulled off the trick of writing a satisfying story while at the same time beginning to build something more.
Augustus John ‘Gus’ Murphy used to be a patrolman in the 2nd Division of the Suffolk County Police Department, Long Island, New York. He also used to be happily married to his childhood sweetheart Annie, and the proud father of two good kids, John Jr and Kristen. But John Jr died two years ago on a basketball court when the congenital defect in his heart decided to announce itself during a pick-up game.
John Jr’s death tore everything apart. Burying a child is the hardest thing a parent can do and through his narration Gus reveals his devastation. The random and senseless nature of the boy’s death is particularly difficult for both parents to come to terms with and Coleman cleverly brings this into sharp relief by having Gus try to solve the mystery of another father’s murdered son.
When Gus was on the force Thomas Delcamino was almost a fixture at the 2nd Precinct house. A big man, Tommy D was never violent. His career as a smalltime thief jumping cars was never very successful and he wasn’t clever enough to make big money or avoid getting caught. The police had him pegged as a loser.
When Tommy turns up at the hotel where Gus now lives and works as a driver and bouncer, Gus is suspicious. A cop’s instincts aren’t easily given up. Tommy asks Gus to investigate the murder of his son TJ. Knowing how the system works, Gus is prepared to believe the local detectives might not work the murder of a small-time car thief and junkie (TJ followed in his dad’s footsteps) as hard as they would that of a law-abiding citizen. One father to another, he is even sympathetic. But Gus can’t help feeling that Tommy has come to him because he’s heard about John Jr, and he’s not about to be manipulated in this way.
After John Jr’s death Gus started seeing a therapist, Dr Rosen, and for pastoral support a catholic priest, Father Bill Kilkenny, whose own faith was tested by the things he witnessed in Vietnam. Both men have been trying to get Gus to open up to the world again. Bill suggests that Gus has judged Tommy too harshly and that Tommy deserves justice just as much as any other man. It’s Gus’ job to help him, regardless of whether or not he is still a cop.
It proves easy enough for Gus to track Tommy down to a trailer in an industrial park, but when he visits one evening, planning to find out more about TJ, Gus is shot at by persons unknown. In the aftermath of the fire fight, Gus finds Tommy’s body. At this point, Gus could give up, but his philosophical duty to Tommy and to society to make things right turns into a moral duty.
As the investigation proceeds Coleman shows us subtle signs of Gus’ fragile recovery. He tries to find witnesses who knew TJ and who can give him valuable information. During this process he himself begins to open up, surprising himself in the process by making friends with the secretive handyman at the hotel, and with an ex-daytime soap actress.
That investigation becomes increasingly dangerous as it becomes apparent TJ was mixed up in the business of Suffolk County’s most notorious criminals including the head of a biker gang, a drug kingpin, and a local mafia don. By this time, Coleman has us just as concerned for Gus’s spiritual health as for his physical safety, and the result is a literary mystery just as absorbing as some of his earlier acknowledged classics Gun Church and The James Deans.
GP Putnam’s Sons
CFL Rating: 5 Stars