A couple of gritty new novels published this month center on two tough New Yorkers, and although they may reside on opposite sides of the law — one is an ex-cop, the other a hit man — they’re both alike in their fortitude, their cool under fire and, oddly enough, their utterly forgettable names.
Long Islanders will instantly recognize John “Gus” Murphy, the retired Suffolk County cop who drives crime writer Reed Farrel Coleman’s latest novel, “Where It Hurts” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 353 pp., $27), the first in a projected series. Gus, compulsively clad in his “Costco wardrobe,” used to have two kids and an ideal marriage, but when his son dropped dead while shooting hoops two years earlier, his world collapsed. Now divorced, he drives a courtesy van shuttling guests between MacArthur Airport and the “Paragon Hotel” in Bohemia, “a pretty grand sight if you didn’t look too closely,” Coleman writes, “and if your taste ran to despair.”
One night, Tommy D., a distraught petty criminal whom Gus arrested a few times, shows up at the Paragon. It turns out that Tommy D.’s son, TJ, has been brutally tortured and murdered. “Broke all his fingers, broke his kneecaps,” Tommy D. says. “They burned him, too.” Because the police seem happy to let the case go cold, Tommy D. hopes Gus, “the rightest cop” he ever met, will come out of retirement for one last job. And much as Gus would like to turn him down, his curiosity and stubbornness drive him back to the streets.
Coleman, a Lake Grove resident who teaches at Hofstra, is an excellent storyteller, and his colorful, punchy writing displays a delicious noir cynicism. A bartender is described as having “so many tats that he looked like a ’70s subway car,” while a cop is “just a triage nurse with a badge and a gun.” Elsewhere, the hidden motto of all police departments is “Expediency Above All,” and the official story “is just that, a story, a convenient narrative in which the facts played only a supporting role.”
But what local crime fiction fans will find most absorbing about “Where It Hurts” is its clear-eyed, knowing portrait of the people and places that comprise Long Island’s hidden underworld. “What off-islanders see is the 24-karat gilding along the edges where the money flows,” Coleman writes, “not the fool’s gold in the middle where the rats race as hard as in the city and the stray dogs lie in wait.”
One of those “stray dogs” could very well be a guy like Roy Cooper, the laconic hit man from College Point, Queens, who’s the main character in screenwriter Scott Frank’s first novel, “Shaker” (Alfred A. Knopf, 337 pp., $26.95).
As a boy, Roy loved airplanes and his family. But when Roy is 12, his mercurial, violent dad suffers a paralyzing stroke. The burden of caring for the old man is too great for Roy’s mom, so she smothers him in his sleep and pins the blame on Roy. Soon, he finds himself abandoned and struggling to survive in the corrupt youth offenders system, where he forms a lifelong bond with a tough boy who will one day introduce Roy to a life of killing.
Now, many years and many murders later, Roy’s getting on a plane for the very first time so he can carry out a hit in L.A., which is still reeling from a massive earthquake that “throttled it like a wolf on a weasel for a full twenty-two seconds.” After the job, Roy gets caught up in a gang-related mugging that claims the life of a promising up-and-coming city councilman who was running for mayor. The episode, which happens to be caught on camera and goes viral, gives Roy, a man who prefers to lurk in the shadows, some very unwelcome Hollywood publicity.
With its driving narrative, slim chapters and sensational plotline, “Shaker” really moves, and Frank proves himself to be as talented at writing genre fiction as he is at writing entertaining movies, like 1995’s “Get Shorty.” Set against a backdrop of literal seismic upheaval, the novel touches on ideas about politics, justice, race and the powerful bonds of family — both those that we’re born into and those that we choose.
But this novel’s most memorable aspect is its main character, a man who reminds us that in a chaotic world where “a blade or a bullet didn’t have any kind of higher purpose” there’s perhaps nothing more dangerous — or more lonely — than “a man who feels nothing.”
Reed Farrel Coleman reads from “Where It Hurts” on Tuesday, Jan. 26, at Barnes & Noble in Lake Grove.