SUNRISE HIGHWAY, by Peter Blauner. Minotaur Books, 338 pp., $27.99.
What James Ellroy did to L.A. in “L.A. Confidential,” Peter Blauner does to L.I. in his new thriller, “Sunrise Highway.”
Blauner spins a hard-hitting, unsettling and relentless tale of police corruption that cuts across the parkways, villages and police headquarters of Long Island. The case takes root in the moment a veteran detective from the Yaphank police nudges a green prosecutor to boost his career by pinning the murder of a white woman on a black man. The longer the case is open, he says, the harder it is on the community. “ ’People are locking their doors. This is how homes lose their value. You put away this smoke and let people sleep sound again, you’ll be made for life.’ ”
This trial plays out in 1977, but it eventually connects to several other similar murder cases, including one in 2017. Washed up on the shore at the tip of Far Rockaway is the body of a young woman wrapped in a black contractor’s bag. Small pebbles clog her mouth and throat. Her hands clasp her belly; she appears to have been pregnant: “There was a collection of small brittle bones between the fingers, which were not part of the adult anatomy. Almost like the victim was trying to hold onto a fragile little bird.”
Onto the case comes NYPD detective Lourdes Robles: tough and persistent but vulnerable — still seeing herself as “the fat girl who couldn’t swim,” Blauner writes. Lourdes is a Latina working in a world dominated by white men, and she’s currently worried about her missing sister, who may have turned to prostitution. (Lourdes debuted last year in Blauner’s “Proving Ground.”)
A detective working with Lourdes suspects the Rockaway case connects to the unsolved murders of several women in Nassau and Suffolk counties. In one of them, the young woman’s mouth and throat were stuffed with branches. And many of the victims’ bodies turned up in wooded areas along the eponymous Sunrise Highway.
So the investigation expands with Lourdes soon facing off with Suffolk County Chief of Police Joseph “Joey” Tolliver.
Despite his outward appearance as a “man’s man, and a cop’s cop . . . a likable guy,” Tolliver is a violent, disturbing character with a network of cops, DAs and even a man in the White House under his thumb. Tolliver achieved this dark influence by mastering what he calls the “reverse integrity test.” This perverse leverage plays out in one of the book’s most chilling moments. Inside a police car, then-sergeant Tolliver leans on a rookie, a “lanky, lantern-jawed” farm boy from Patchogue.
Tolliver hands the boy a rolled up 20-dollar bill and orders him to snort a line of cocaine. The rookie reluctantly complies as Tolliver thinks, “I own you now.”
When Lourdes points out the common threads she’s uncovered in the murders, Tolliver brushes them aside.
Nagged by the possibility her sister could be one of the victims, Lourdes pushes on against the resistance of Tolliver and his minions in scenes that move to a harrowing climax.
Except for a few melodramatic descriptives (“As seagulls swarmed like screeching boomerangs”), Blauner’s work in “Sunrise Highway” is a master class in how to write a thriller. A novelist and a writer on “Law & Order: LA” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” Blauner crafts tight scenes that hum with tension and propel the reader forward. Characters major and minor are distinctive, and keenly observed details — the paper napkins, the cooks shouting in Spanish and the stools that seem about to tip at a popular chain restaurant — create a palpable sense of place.
Readers on Long Island and elsewhere will have a hard time bailing out as Lourdes and Tolliver race along Sunrise Highway.
Peter Blauner discusses ‘Sunrise Highway’
WHEN | WHERE Friday, Sept. 21, at 7 p.m., Turn of the Corkscrew, 110 N. Park Ave.; Rockville Centre
INFO 516-764-6000, turnofthecorkscrew.com