A Wise Guy Mystery Writer Makes Good

Reed Farrel Coleman i i

hide captionReed Farrel Coleman found his calling when he took a night school class in detective fiction at Brooklyn College.

Reed Farrel Coleman

Reed Farrel Coleman found his calling when he took a night school class in detective fiction at Brooklyn College.

The Moe Prager Novels:

  • Walking the Perfect Square (2001)
  • Redemption Street (2004)
  • The James Deans (2005)
  • Soul Patch (2007)
  • Empty Ever After (2008)

I was all set to do a big mystery round-up for this week; one of those "Hey, let's get a jump on summer!" cavalcades of crime and suspense novels. But as any student of detective fiction knows, the minute you think you've hatched a good plan, the universe throws a wrench into the works.

Every time I started to write my paean to the predictable excellence of new crime novels by George Pelecanos and Michael Connelly, a little guy kept muscling into my consciousness, complaining about how those best-seller boys always steal the spotlight. This wise guy writer's name is Reed Farrel Coleman and he made a good case for himself.

Admittedly, I haven't been able to stop thinking about Coleman's Moe Prager mystery series ever since one of God's own divine messengers — that is, an independent bookseller — recommended it to me last year. If life were fair, Coleman would be as celebrated as Pelecanos and Connelly. Then again, if life were fair, a hard-boiled poet like Coleman would have nothing to write about.

With a triple-decker silver handle like Reed Farrel Coleman, he sounds like the headmaster of Choate, not a working stiff who, I kid you not, holds down a day job as a commercial truck driver licensed to drive hazardous materials like nuclear waste. A Brooklyn boy who came of age in New York City's noir period of the 1970s, Coleman found his calling when he took a night school class in detective fiction at Brooklyn College. (Pelecanos and Raymond Chandler also took similar routes to hard-boiled greatness.)

Coleman has written several different mystery series, has won a slew of major mystery awards and is admired by his colleagues. Some of those famous tough guys and gals have even written heartfelt introductions to the Moe Prager novels, which were originally brought out by major publishing houses, but are currently being kept in print by small presses — Busted Flush Press and Bleak House.

There are five novels in the Moe Prager series and, together, they do what only the low-rent genre of series fiction can do: They compose a slowly evolving saga, in this case, set mostly in and around Coney Island.

Moe, our hero, is that iconic hard-boiled character: a too-smart-for-his-own-good ex-cop turned private investigator. He makes a crucial mistake in the first novel (called Walking the Perfect Square): He lies to a woman named Katy, who will become his wife, about the true fate of her missing college student brother. Moe lies out of kindness and, thus, ignores one of the golden rules of the noir world: "no good deed goes unpunished." That original sin of Moe's past haunts the novels and accrues in awful power as they go on. By the last novel in the series, graced with the Chandler-esque title, Empty Ever After, you're basically wishing for the doomed Moe to be put out of his existential misery. The fact that, throughout most of the series, it's Moe's own monstrous father-in-law who's torturing him with the threat of spilling the truth to Katy, is simply Coleman's own delicious spin on the dysfunctional family theme that's a staple of classic American detective fiction.

Coleman is a pro at executing all the other standard hard-boiled elements like brooding atmosphere and loop-de-loop plot-lines. But it's Moe's New York Jewish, part-Yuppie, part blue collar, insider-outsider sensibility that's the fresh draw here. In my favorite novel of the series, Redemption Street, Moe travels to the crumbling Catskills resort area to solve an age-old mystery (there's the past again) at a burned-out hotel. After wisecracking with a smal-town local woman who looks blankly back at him, Moe reflects:

Sarcasm isn't a universal language. That's the thing most New Yorkers forget when they venture beyond the city limits. Most Americans don't spend 80 percent of their waking hours constructing witty comebacks and snide remarks. Not everyone acts as if they're onstage at the Improv or trying to outwit Groucho Marx or George Bernard Shaw. Most people say what needs to be said and shut up.

He's right. And in honor of the wisdom of Moe's sociological insight, I'll stop acting like the native New Yorker I am and say what needs to be said and then shut up: Reed Farrel Coleman is a terrific writer. If mysteries are your poison of choice, hunt his up. It may take you a little longer to nab them, but you'll appreciate them all the more for that.

Excerpt: 'Empty Ever After'

Cover
Empty Ever After
By Reed Farrel Coleman
Paperback, 272 pages
Bleak House
List Price: $14.95

[ prologUe ]

1984

[ the moUrner's prayer ]

We walked through the cemetery, Mr. Roth's arm looped through mine. The cane in his left hand tapped out a mournful meter on the ice-slicked gravel paths that wound their way through endless rows of gravestones. The crunch and scrape of our footfalls were swallowed up and forgotten as easily as the heartbeats and breaths of all the dead, ever. The swirling wind demanded we move along, biting hard at our skin, blowing yesterday's fallen snow in our faces.

"Bernstein!" Mr. Roth defied the wind, pointing with his cane at a nearby hunk of polished granite. "You know what it means in English, Bernstein?"

"No. I know stein means stone."

"Amber."

"Amber, like the resin with the insects in it?"

"Amber, yes. Bernstein, like burned stone. German, such an ugly language," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "But at least the words

sound like what they mean."

We walked on.

"Alotta dead Jews in this place, Mr. Moe."

"I think that's the point."

"When I die, I don't want this … this nonsense."

"Why tell me, Mr. Roth?"

"And who else should I tell, my dead wife? Wait, we're almost at Hannah's grave. I'll say Kaddish for her and then I'll tell her, but I don't think she'll listen. I wasn't a very good husband, so it's only right she shouldn't pay attention."

"What about your son?"

He stopped in his tracks, turning to face me, taking a firm hold on my arm. There were very few moments like this between Israel Roth and me. He'd suffered through the unimaginable, but he very rarely let the pain show through.

"I'm serious here, Moses." He almost never called me that. "This is not for me, to be cold in the ground. Kaddish and ashes, that's for me."

"Okay, Izzy, Kaddish and ashes."

"Good, good," he said. "Come already, we're almost there."

I stood away from the grave as Mr. Roth mumbled the prayer.

"Yis-ga-dal v'yis-ka-dash sh'may ra-bo, B'ol-mo dee-v'ro …"

"Amen," I said when he finished.

As was tradition, we both placed little stones atop Hannah Roth's tombstone. I never said Kaddish for my parents. Israel Roth had tried to rekindle whatever small embers of my Jewish soul still burned. Even so, they didn't burn brightly. I wondered if they'd burn at all when he was no longer there to stoke them.

"Would she forgive me, do you think?" he asked, again twining his arm back through mine.

"Would you forgive her?"

His face brightened. "See, there's the Jew in you, Mr. Moe. You answer my question with a question."

"I would forgive you, Izzy."

The brightness vanished as suddenly as it appeared. "You do not know my sins." That wasn't quite true, but I didn't press.

As we got close to my car, I slipped on the ice and landed square on my ass. Mr. Roth took great joy in my fall. His joy seemed to dissipate as we rode out of the cemetery and back to Brooklyn.

"Poland had miserable winters," he said, staring out at the filthy slush and snow-covered reeds along the Belt Parkway. "The camps were muddy always, then frozen. Rain and snow all the time. The ground was very slippery."

"I'd think that would be the last thing people in Auschwitz would worry about. Slippery ground, I mean."

"Really? Part of self-preservation was to busy myself with the little things. Did you ever wonder what became of the ashes?"

"What ashes?"

"The ashes of the dead, of the ones the Nazis gassed then burned.

They didn't all turn to smoke."

"I never thought about it."

He cupped his hands and spread them a few inches apart. "One body is only a little pile of ashes, but burn a few hundred thousand, a million, and you got piles and piles. Mountains. In the winter, the Germans made some of us spread the ashes on the paths so they shouldn't slip. Everyday I spread the ashes. At first, I thought, 'Whose ashes are these I am throwing like sawdust on the butchershop floor. Is this a handful of my mother, of the pale boy who stood beside me in the cattle car?' Then I stopped thinking about it. Thinking about the big things was a dangerous activity in such a place. Guilt too."

"But you survived."

"I survived, yes, by not thinking, by not feeling. But I've never stopped spreading the ashes."

We fell silent. Then, as I pulled off the exit for my house, Mr. Roth turned to me.

"Remember what I said in the cemetery, no burial for me."

"I know, Izzy, Kaddish and ashes. But where should they be spread?"

"You already know the answer to that," he said. "And we will never speak of these things again, Mr. Moe."

We never did, but never is a funny word. Time makes everyone's never a little different.

Books Featured In This Story

Empty Ever After
Empty Ever After

by Reed Farrel Coleman

Paperback, 259 pages | purchase

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  • Empty Ever After
  • Reed Farrel Coleman
Walking the Perfect Square
Walking the Perfect Square

by Reed Farrel Coleman and Megan Abbott

Paperback, 219 pages | purchase

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  • Walking the Perfect Square
  • Reed Farrel Coleman and Megan Abbott
Redemption Street
Redemption Street

by Reed Farrel Coleman and Peter Spiegelman

Paperback, 213 pages | purchase

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  • Redemption Street
  • Reed Farrel Coleman and Peter Spiegelman

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