WHAT YOU BREAK, by Reed Farrel Coleman. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 357 pp., $27.
A sense of place has always been central to crime fiction — what would Spenser be without gritty Irish Boston, or Philip Marlowe separated from shadowy, rain-slicked Los Angeles? Now, Long Island has its own laureate of the LIE in the form of Reed Farrel Coleman and his hard-bitten sleuth Gus Murphy.
“What You Break” is the second installment in the bestselling author’s new series, after last year’s “Where It Hurts.” Murphy is a hard-boiled ex-cop with a blasted past and a heart full of grief, and the new novel begins with him witnessing a gang-style execution on a desolate back street in Brooklyn. What ensues is a deadly deep dive into a sinister underworld and a path leading backward from an apparently random killing all the way to the jungles of Vietnam. Meanwhile, Murphy is grieving the recent death of his son and juggling a tentative romance with a bartender-turned-actress with dreams of her own.
Coleman, who lives in Lake Grove and teaches part-time at Hofstra, establishes the noir landscape — a colorful demimonde of fleabag hotels, rundown tenement apartments, cheap ethnic restaurants, seamy pickup bars “for the cheap-beer-and-cigarette crowd” and the endless traffic-choked freeways — with complete authority. (Murphy even dismisses one proffered motive for the book’s central murder as “the concoction of a Newsday reporter.”)
It’s not just the details Coleman gets right, it’s the whole structure of class, race and money. “If you listened closely enough,” Murphy muses, “you could almost hear the official island mantra beneath the crashing of the waves along the South Shore beaches: I want, I want, I want.” The railroad tracks separating an affluent Bellport neighborhood from a poorer one “might just as well have been a wall or a moat.”
Murphy crisscrosses this desolate landscape with increasing urgency, as the threats and violence escalate and the sense of circling danger tightens. Everyone he meets seems damaged or broken in some essential way, scarred by a violent past, a romance gone sour, a prison sentence, a police scandal.
One of the attractions of the crime novel in general is how, for all its chaos and violence, it functions within a set of strictures and conventions that are, in their own way, as deeply codified as those of Restoration drama. Coleman fulfills two of the genre’s fundamental dictums — that the protagonist must be a damaged person with a dark past, and that the instigating incident must be but one end of a long and tangled skein. And in the tradition of down-at-heels gumshoes everywhere, Murphy is a stolid dispenser of fatalistic bar-stool philosophy: “We all come into the world in pretty much the same way, yet there are many, many ways to leave it. And leave it we will, inevitably and alone.”
If the novel has a downside, it lies in the way that Coleman’s plot gets away from him at times; he seems to think that the solution to any narrative dead end is to pile on another horrific buried secret. The book goes on for about 50 pages longer than it needs to, and this reader unraveled the mystery a fair bit sooner than the protagonist did — never a good sign. (I could also have done without the wise Irish priest who calls Murphy “boyo” and says things like “Who among us asks for what we really get, Gus? It is our fate.”)
That said, “What You Break” is never dull, and the climax, when it arrives, is a corker — tensely narrated and genuinely dramatic. And Coleman has the cunning to leave much of Gus’ past clouded in secrecy, ripe for future revelations — and adventures.