Brooklyn, Floating Bodies Lure Crime Writer Cohen Writer Gabriel Cohen bases his Detective Jack Leightner series in Brooklyn, where he says the neighborhoods "are not static at all. The lines where things are changing create conflict and sometimes create violence," which is reflected in his books.
NPR logo

Brooklyn, Floating Bodies Lure Crime Writer Cohen

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Brooklyn, Floating Bodies Lure Crime Writer Cohen

Brooklyn, Floating Bodies Lure Crime Writer Cohen

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The historic decrease in crime on the island of Manhattan has forced a New York City crime writer to adjust. Gabriel Cohen keeps his fictional detective across the East River in Brooklyn.

Mr. GABRIEL COHEN (Writer): So much of the life of Manhattan is kind of hidden up at the top of these buildings, whereas in Brooklyn, the life is pretty much out on the street, out on the stoop, out on the waterfront.

INSKEEP: The perfect place for a writer who wants to explore neighborhood and history through the eyes of a cop. As part of our Crime in the City series, Gabriel Cohen showed NPRs Robert Smith where the bodies wash up.

ROBERT SMITH: Were heading out to Brooklyn the way Gabriel Cohens detective might, by boat, and slightly nauseous.

Mr. COHEN: I get seasick just thinking about getting seasick.

SMITH: Luckily, its a smooth day on the water as we swing into Buttermilk Channel and the Brooklyn waterfront opens up in front of us. This is the neighborhood known as Red Hook.

Mr. COHEN: I think a lot of New Yorkers don't really know much about this kind of strange, low, flat waterfront neighborhood with these old Civil War-era warehouses.

SMITH: This place was a mystery to Cohen when he first started to explore it about a decade ago. Red Hook used to be this thriving New York port, and then all of the sudden it became a ghost town. The fate of Red Hook was Cohens original who-done-it.

Mr. COHEN: What happened to it? How could it possibly have been so busy and then now be so quiet? I chose this character, who was sort of in the thick of all that. That enabled me to explore it.

SMITH: NYPD Detective Jack Leightner grew up in Rood Hook in its heyday. Now, only murder brings him back.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter, clanking sound)

SMITH: The ferry stops on the Red Hook waterfront right at a brand new Ikea store built on what used to be a ship repair facility. But were going to head down one of these empty cobblestone streets and tackle what were calling the case of the missing neighborhood.

In Cohens series, Leightners family lives the history of Red Hook. The detectives father was a Russian immigrant, a dock worker here. The detectives son is a young filmmaker who lives in the hip neighborhood to the north. And Jack, well, like Red Hook itself, he is complex.

Mr. COHEN: I think he has a little bit of an outsiders perspective. Hes Jewish for one thing, and I think the percentage of Jewish cops in the NYPD is something like five percent.

SMITH: And to use the Yiddish term, hes a bit of a schlub.

Mr. COHEN: That sounds too harsh. I love the guy. I find things to admire in him. I wouldnt call him a schlub or a loser because he has a real passion and commitment for what hes doing.

SMITH: On some of these streets, its hard to spot any sign of life. But here on Conover, theres a sign with three letters: B-A-R.

Mr. COHEN: Thats Sunnys Bar, and were about to meet Sunny.

SMITH: This is an old dock workers bar, and its built a little bit like the inside of a ship. Sunny Balzanos family has run this place for three generations. If were going to investigate the death of Red Hook, Sunny is the first eyewitness.

Mr. SUNNY BALZANO (Owner, Sunnys Bar): In those years when I was growing up, it looked like the Long Island Expressway out there in the river. This was one of maybe 40 bars in the whole neighborhood.

SMITH: Forty bars?

Mr. BALZANO: Yeah. This is like the only one left of the bars from that era.

SMITH: Back in the old days, with all the money and longshoremen in this neighborhood, crime was a fact of life. Sunny remembers one murder just outside the bar.

Mr. BALZANO: It was a vendetta on the iceman. I heard this cracking, oh, about five, 6:00 oclock in the morning, and I looked out the window and there was his body, you know, just - I use (unintelligible) the knife. It was oozing blood, you know.

SMITH: But that was a long time ago. Sunny left the neighborhood when he was a young man, and when he came back, the crowds, the port, the bars were all gone.

So who would have the motive to kill a neighborhood like this? Cohen takes me down by the water.

Mr. COHEN: Were looking across the harbor now. If you look to New Jersey, you see a sort of thicket of these loading cranes from the ships. A lot of that shipping and unloading moved to New Jersey because it's much easier to have access to railroad yards there, and that just devastated this neighborhood.

SMITH: Okay, so New Jersey is a likely suspect, as are container ships that made these old piers obsolete. The problem was with no eyes on the neighborhood, it became the perfect place to dump a body.

Mr. COHEN: Can I read you a quote

SMITH: Sure.

Mr. COHEN: from one of the books?

SMITH: This is from your novel, The Graving Dock.

Mr. COHEN: When the water warmed up, bacteria released gases in the corpses and they rose to the surface, usually around mid-April. It was known as Floater Week. There was a strange poetry to it, all those cold, submerged bodies rising up: The drunken boaters, the bridge jumpers, the victims of mob hits who often escaped their concrete shoes or chains as their bodies softened and frayed.

SMITH: Oh, that is not what the two guys fishing next to us want to hear, although they say they have pulled up just about everything you can think of from these waters.

Mr. AL TORRES (Fisherman): Condoms, empty containers, bottles, stuff like that.

Mr. COHEN: Some people call the condoms Coney Island whitefish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Ever pull up a dead body?

Mr. TORRES: If I did, Id cut the string and let them go again.

SMITH: Al Torres grew up here in Red Hook, in the housing projects during the deserted 1980s. He says if anyones responsible for the death of the neighborhood, its all the new development springing up in just about every empty lot and warehouse. That brought in more cops, he says, more people watching him.

Mr. TORRES: Cameras, they put up cameras, surveillance. I miss it when they ain't have none of that.

SMITH: Well, you know, thats what happens when they have grocery stores and condos move in. They put up the cameras too, right?

Mr. TORRES: Well, they should have put the condos and grocery stores somewhere else.

SMITH: Cohen says thats the kind of tension that fuels his books. In Brooklyn, some community is always being displaced by another.

Mr. COHEN: There are so many different forces working on these neighborhoods. Theyre not static at all. And the points, the lines where things are changing create conflict, and sometimes create violence.

SMITH: Like in the first Jack Leightner mystery, a young Hispanic mans death is linked to a rich, white developer. Or in the latest book called Neptune Avenue, its a West Indian victim, a Hasidic suspect, and the Russian mob thrown in for good measure. No shortage of grudges in Brooklyn these days.

To end our tour of Red Hook, Cohen brings me inland to see the final clue.

Mr. COHEN: We are standing next to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which sort of runs in kind of a ditch that cuts Red Hook off from the rest of Brooklyn.

SMITH: Urban planner Robert Moses built this highway in the 1950s, and Red Hook was never the same.

So is Moses the culprit? Did Cohen figure out exactly who killed Red Hook? Like in any good mystery, theres a twist.

Mr. COHEN: It's not dead. Its not dead yet.

SMITH: Thats what youve discovered. After this whole mystery story, its not dead?

Mr. COHEN: Absolutely not. You see a lot of weeds coming up out of the cracks in the Red Hook sidewalks, and the whole neighborhood is really like that. It's hopefully indestructible.

SMITH: Which is exactly what draws Cohen and his detective back here for more.

Robert Smith, NPR News, on the edge of Red Hook, Brooklyn.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Hes on the edge of more than that. Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.


And Im Linda Wertheimer.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.