Manhattan Nocturne, by Colin Harrison

This is a hard-boiled thriller from 1996, but it is also literature. I’ve searched for Harrison novels for some time, but this is the first work of his I’ve found. And it has met my expectations. It is terrific.

The author grabs the reader in two ways on the novel’s very first pages. First, he establishes the tough, gritty Manhattan scene, its dark alleys, its scandals, its dangerous people and its dramatic nights. Then he establishes the cynical viewpoint of a newspaper columnist assigned to satisfy the public’s demand for both titillating scandal and the ironies of justice.

The columnist is Porter Wren. He is a confident man who has a high opinion of himself and of his skills as a journalist. At a party given by his obese Australian publisher, Hobbs, he is approached by a beautiful woman, Caroline Crowley, a femme fatale who is used to controlling men with her beauty and has an equally high opinion of herself. She tells Wren that she wants him to find out what happened to her husband, the famous movie director Simon Crowley, who vanished and whose body was unexpectedly discovered in a demolished building. But Wren is not convinced that that is her true purpose for approaching him; and the novel’s plot revolves around a kind of duel they have, each trying to use the other, control the other, and, as they become intimate, to understand what makes each other tick.

An initial complication is that Wren is happily married to a smart hand surgeon, Lisa, and has two children he loves. So he is continually troubled by what he sees as a betrayal of both his wife and his children. But Caroline fascinates him, tantalizes him physically, and appeals to his professional instincts. And the tales she tells of her husband and of their relationship seem to remind him of the many other human relationships he has encountered and that have prompted columns that helped make him famous. Indeed, as a cynical narrator, Wren early on declares that “we live in a time in which all horror has been commodified into entertainment.”

The dead husband was noted for short documentaries based on real events, and the initial story line revolves around the tape recording of an embarrassing meeting between Caroline and the obese publishing magnate Hobbs. Which the latter is determined to destroy at all costs. But Caroline’s husband has created other tapes as well, including one that shows how a policeman was killed and another incriminating one which shows a strictly personal murder.

The story grows more complicated as Wren speculates why these tapes are important and how he can use them, and then it becomes even more complicated as he discovers what each tape contains. However, these complications also serve to deepen our understanding of Wren, for they show how human this cynical columnist really is. For example, one tape forces him to change his opinion of Hobbs, the boss who has threatened his journalism career; while another tape, that of the murder, deepens the moral questions confronting Wren, who is already dealing with the moral issue of his extra-martial affair with Caroline.

Overall, this is a richly told story of lust and greed on one hand, and of vanity, power, and human folly on the other. It is also a tale in which violence lurks around every corner. For example, Wren himself is beaten and maced, while his house is invaded and his little boy shot. As a result, he himself exacts his own revenge, which produces a violent streak in him the reader does not anticipate. Indeed, reading about the violence dehumanizes him. And then Harrison takes the violence a step further as we witness on tape the actual carving up of a murder victim. It appears that Harrison wants the reader to feel the horrors and the risks that challenge these characters, but for me he overdoes it—just as for some he will have overdone the sex in order to make Wren’s fascination with Caroline convincing.

These people share stories of seduction, lying, self-doubt, and shame. And, as a result, the author probes the rich inner emotions of these characters, as well as the rationalizations and the psychology of strained human relationships. Wren confronts a fascinating woman he does not understand but craves, a woman he knows is using him but who is hiding answers to a puzzle that fascinates him. What is she hiding, he wonders. About her real motive in seducing him. About her husbands’s mysterious death. About her relationship with Hobbs. And how can he get her out of his system, and then back to his own life?

The duel between Wren and Caroline reaches its dramatic conclusion when Wren finally challenges her. “No, Caroline, no. You brought me into this. You thought you could just…lead me around. But you didn’t study me very carefully, Caroline, you didn’t figure out how a small-town boy like me with not one connection in New York City elbowed and hustled and hassled his way to be a newspaper columnist.”

As Jim Shepard wrote in The New York Times, “The novel’s protagonist is most memorable when that small-town boy, for all his bluster, articulates with real sadness his understanding of his own wrongdoing, and of the damage he’s done to those he loves.”

Indeed, our final glimpse of Wren takes us into his core, and into the rich contradictions that Harrison brings to his portrait of this troubled man. “I wished then, with a final sweet pain…that despite my betrayal of those whom I loved most, I might yet prove worthy of their affections. Better then, I thought, that our respective confessions go unheard, that they fall away into time. There would, I know, be other questions to worry about, other dark crises of heart and hope; sooner or later life brings to all of us some form of suffering. Would that we were equal to it always.”

These musings, these probings of internal doubt, are what raises this thriller for me to the level of literature. And what makes me want to seek out more of Harrison’s work. (December, 2018)

 

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The Drop, by Michael Connelly

This 2011 work is an outstanding mystery, one of Connelly’s best. Harry Bosch is approaching mandated retirement as a cop, and he is given two cases. The two cases are not connected, and they never overlap. But what they both do is examine the idea of justice. From almost opposite directions. They ask what are the ends that justify the means of administering justice. And in one case, the reader leans toward the justice thwarted rather than the justice achieved. And in the other, he leans toward the justice achieved rather than the justice compromised.

The novel works because of the complexity of both cases, but it also works because Bosch is fully human. He is a cop, but he has a personal life that begins with his 15-year-old daughter, Maddie; and he often stops his investigations—as Connelly stops his fast pace—to interact with her. Their conversations may last less than a page, but we see what a good father and a good person he is. Bosch is also a widower, and lonely; and when he meets an attractive therapist, Hannah Stone, on one of the cases, both he and the reader hope she will be able to fill the emotional side of his life. In fact, even his daughter wishes so. Meanwhile, in his professional life, Bosch has an interesting, changing relationship with his partner, Chu, who both helps him and betrays him. Chu himself is also interesting, as he has his own issues, and resents this boss who never confides in him.

The Drop is aptly titled. DROP stands, conveniently, for Bosch’s status in the Deferred Retirement Option Plan. Plus, one case he is handling concerns whether George Irving, a man who has dropped from a hotel balcony, has died as a result of a murder, a suicide, or an accident. And why does his powerful politician father Irvin Irving, an anti-police nemesis of Bosch, ask Bosch of all people to handle a case which involves the death of his son?

The other case involves a rape and murder from the past that went unsolved, and had been dropped by the police. Now, it has resurfaced in the LA police department’s Open-Unsolved Unit, where Bosch works, after new DNA evidence has been discovered. Plus, there are also occasions when Bosch is being encouraged to drop each of these two cases.

Connelly spends more time on the first case, in which the prominent politician demands that Bosch find the truth about his son’s death from the hotel balcony. The case brings Bosch into the continual contact with the politics and justice practiced in Los Angeles, and offers the reader frequent insights into the interactions among citizens, the police, politicians, and judges. This case revolves around the son using his father’s political connections to curry favors for his clients. Bosch learns that the son’s situation is more complicated than that, however, and as he explores the son’s connections with politics, the police, and his family, the detective leans toward different explanations of his death. This is what builds the suspense, as the reader is also turned in one direction and then in another.

The rape and murder case is complicated by the fact that the blood on the victim’s body belongs to an eight-year-old child, Clayton Pell, who is now an adult. He could not have committed the rape and murder, of course, at eight years old. Then who did? Bosch uses logic and his powers of investigation to find out, but then the boy emerges as a mayor player as he both emerges as a criminal himself and seeks his own kind of justice. This dark side of society is leavened, however, by Bosch’s romance with the boy’s therapist; and yet at the same time it is complicated by the boy’s evolution into a man whose adult transgressions have been formed by his rough early life. So, when do we sympathize with Clayton Pell, and when do we not? Connolly loves these emotional conflicts, these ironies, and his work is all the stronger for it.

After these two fascinating, complicated cases, it is the book’s ending that helps it to end on a strong point, one that points to the irony and complexity of justice. For it suggests that one guilty man may not be so guilty, after all. And that the department Bosch is so dedicated to appears to have its own kind of guilt.

And so, one wonders how cynical Bosch will remain in Connelly’s next book. Will he be further disillusioned by the police corruption that he terms “high jingo”? Or will he soften, as he shares his heart with someone besides his daughter? No, he has to remain the hard-boiled cynic, even as he remains a needy person. Perhaps, in fact, the cynicism is to shield him from that neediness. On the other hand, maybe the world around him will be lightened by either Hannah or future characters. We shall see. All I know is that this novel has certainly interested me in more of Connelly’s work. (October, 2016)