Central Park West by James Comey

3 Mins read
Central Park West by James Comey front cover

There’s always a question over whether a senior government figure can hack it when they turn to writing crime. Often, it’s smarter to satisfy the urge by collaborating with established writers as the Clintons have done – Bill with James Patterson on The President’s Daughter and Hillary with Louise Penny to create State of Terror. Now, former FBI director James Comey has thrown his hat into the ring with a debut novel reflecting his years in federal law enforcement tackling organised crime alongside facing the dubious machinations of the political world. 

Comey rose to fame in 2017 when the FBI pursued an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election, clashing with then president Donald Trump and eventually losing his job. With that in mind we wondered if Comey might write a political thriller with an out-of-control alt-right President at its heart. Alas, no. However, Central Park West is a courtroom drama that does draw in some of the live issues in American politics.

Central Park West, on 81st Street in Upper Manhattan, is home to the rich and even richer. When a woman enters one of the buildings, the doorman recognises her by her Hermes scarf and outfit – Mrs Burke. At the lift she heads for the penthouse home of Antonio Burke, former governor of New York. By the time the woman leaves, he is slipping into a fatal hypoglycaemic coma induced by syringe.

Later that day, a delivery sends the doorman up to the penthouse, where Burke is found dead. He remembers Mrs Burke’s visit and it looks like a slam dunk case to everyone. Kyra Burke’s hatred of her estranged husband was well known and the disgraced politician was a dangerous sexual predator. 

Meanwhile, Nora Carleton, Assistant US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, is working on a big case with her FBI-trained mafia investigator colleague, Benny Dugan. Finally, they have enough evidence to send mobster Dominic ‘The Nose’ D’Amico away for life. Key witness Daniel ‘Frenchie’ Joseph, involved in a number of robberies for D’Amico, is prepared to testify in return for witness protection. D’Amico knows it’s over but thinks he has one last play. He knows something about the murder of Antonio Burke. By claiming it was a hit, he could completely change the complexion of the Kyra Burke trial.

The DA doesn’t want to do a deal but Nora and Benny want to dig into it. The investigation takes them though the affairs of City Hall, uncovering corruption and connections to New York’s criminal networks. The race is on to keep D’Amico locked up and avoid a miscarriage of justice for Kyra Burke.

This novel takes a little time to warm up. It’s the connection between the two cases that gives the narrative real drive and that has to be established in the setup. This makes for a far more interesting story than either in isolation, which would be something we’ve seen before. They are simple cases that would need a lot more physical action to pep them up without the intriguing cross-referencing that creates an original and engaging read.

The twists and turns of the plot – once the link is established – are impressive for a debut. Comey is acutely aware that courtrooms are as much about stories as they are about finding the truth. He illustrates how a trial can have a life of its own that reflects human failings and agendas. It’s as much about what is hidden as what is heard. Comey makes the courtroom action lively, entertaining and revealing.

The author also understands that the legal drama isn’t enough to sustain a whole novel. Once we know there’s more to both cases, the investigation outside the court gets going and Central Park West becomes more intense, grappling as it does with moral issues. 

Comey’s ensemble isn’t quite to the standard of Steve Cavanagh’s New York legal set as seen in the Eddie Flynn novels, but Nora Carleton’s ‘Mrs Smooth’ and Benny Dugan’s ‘Mr Rough’ are a solid pairing and Comey has put a good team around them. If he intends to revisit this crime fighting duo, as seems likely, fans of the legal thriller will have a new series to watch out for. A little less of the early exposition, which is natural when introducing characters, could mean for an energetic second story.

James Comey must have come across myriad stories in his political/legal jobs over the years, prosecuting Manhattan gangsters, so he gets the zeitgeist and knows what works as thriller material. He clearly understands how to structure a crime novel and make it a fun. 

Head of Zeus

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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