by Gabriel Cohen
Published by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press
294 pages, 2001
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A Mean "Red Hook"
Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson
Red Hook is the tale of the last, harrowing case of homicide detective Jack Leightner. It would have been the perfect book with which to end a crime fiction series: The veteran detective, having sacrificed his marriage and his family to forge a stellar career with the elite Brooklyn South Homicide Task Force, finds himself faced with a grisly and apparently insoluble murder case. The body of a young Hispanic man, bound hand and foot with ropes and chained to cinderblocks, is found in a field beside a polluted shipping canal in a down-at-heels Brooklyn community known as Red Hook. The victim's family and friends offer no clues, and because the victim was merely a porter in a tony Manhattan apartment building, Leightner's superiors soon lose interest in the case. But Leightner can't let go. It's not just because he is a shrewd and dedicated cop; it's because Red Hook, and the murder itself, echo with a terrible secret from his past.
The book's first chapter sucked me in as if I'd already followed Leightner through a half-dozen adventures to this culminating quest. But surprisingly, Red Hook is a stand-alone novel and a debut work at that. First-time novelist Gabriel Cohen has chosen to start at the end of a detective's career, at a point where pride and ambition give way to disappointment and doubt. The resulting novel is as surprising and complex as the little-known Brooklyn neighborhood in which it is set.
Red Hook is rich with character and blessedly devoid of stereotypes. The gang of young Hispanic men we meet in the novel's prologue seem ominous at first glance, but it turns out they've gathered only to ride their racing bikes through the night. They speed south from their dreary neighborhood along the East River where their leader, Tomas Berrios, stops to stare in awe at the hemisphere's longest span, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, soaring from Brooklyn to Staten Island:
This, now: here was a place of power. Under this eerie manmade object built to such an immense scale, a floodlit arc reaching out into the sky, the night hummed with something great, some invisible electric force. Funny, he thought: that he should be dwarfed by this bridge, yet feel his heart expand.
A few pages later, the aspiring Berrios is dead, a "vic" in the parlance of the cops. Swarming over the river bank, they determine that his body was brought there and dumped. Anselmo Alvarez, the team's forensic expert, rolls the body over to reveal the cause of death: a "thin ugly slit of a stab wound." Precinct detective Gary Daskivitch is startled to see his mentor, Leightner, turn away and vomit.
"What is it with you and stabbings?" Alvarez asks. Leightner answers him in expletives and only in the book's final pages will he reveal the answer.
The search for Berrios' killer leads Leightner and Daskivitch to an odd assortment of informants: a terrified barge captain who denies having seen the body dumped, a wealthy real estate developer who lived in the apartment building where Berrios worked and the victim's distraught and defensive family.
Why would anyone want to kill the amiable and hardworking Berrios? Wife and friends confirm that he had talked of getting rich soon. This leads Leightner and Daskivitch to stage a clever and highly illegal shakedown of the local drug dealer, but it yields nothing. The investigation founders. Like many ambitious sleuths, Leightner handles frustration poorly. We learn he is lonely, missing the ex-wife and the now-grown son he had neglected and alienated. His drinking borders on alcoholism. The only redeeming aspect of his private life is his friendship with his elderly landlord, Mr. Gardner, with whom he often spends the evening watching television and drinking beer.
Humor lightens -- just barely -- Leightner's love life, which consists of a tawdry relationship with an attractive but bitter Columbia University instructor, Sheila Dixon. Preoccupied by the Berrios case, uneasy about the relationship that has little going for it outside of sex, Leightner finds himself imagining Sheila's living room as a murder scene and Sheila as the victim:
If this was a homicide scene, who would have killed her? Disgruntled student, maybe, academic career ruined by a failing grade? Too Columbo. Mostly likely it would just be an interrupted B and E. Up over the deck, through the sliding door. Maybe the perp would leave some prints on a take-out food container, a mid-job snack. Jack would guess his nationality by the type of condiment left out on the counter.
Leightner's talents and hard work lead him ever closer to Berrios' murderer -- even as his superiors are warning, and then ordering, him off the trail. But memories of a crime he witnessed long ago in Red Hook -- and painful encounters with his estranged son -- are robbing him of the concentration and detachment he needs to bring his solo investigation to a close.
As Red Hook builds to a stark and painful end, Cohen moves away from the tone and the structure we expect of crime fiction. By the final pages, the book has taken on, and wears surprisingly well, the mantle of literary fiction. Nevertheless, Red Hook earns a place on my shelf of favorite new crime fiction -- and it's all the more appreciated for being a bridge from the mystery genre to the literary world beyond. | November 2001
Karen G. Anderson is a contributing editor of January Magazine.