TomahawkPoe.jpgIn Print (Book Reviews and Published Pieces)



Philadelphia Noir, ed. by Carlin Romano

Saturday, November 6, 2010, Philadelphia Inquirer

At long last, walks on this city's dark side

Philadelphia Noir

edited by Carlin Romano

Akashic Books. 300 pp.

reviewed by Edward Pettit

Since 2004, Akashic Books has been publishing a noir series, each volume a collection of short stories set in a particular city or distinct locality.

Brooklyn Noir started it all, followed by 41 more titles such as Los Angeles Noir and Dublin Noir. All of the stories are new. You won't find any Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, although Akashic has added a few volumes of classic noir fiction, including these authors.

Philadelphia, to the chagrin of the many mystery and crime novelists who write in this city, has long been overlooked in favor of such noir hotbeds as Portland, Toronto, and the Twin Cities.

Philadelphia Noir, edited by Carlin Romano, critic-at-large for the Chronicle of Higher Education and former Inquirer book critic, contains stories by 15 writers, including Romano, all set within (or very near) the borders of the Quaker City.

A place that has long struggled with homogeneity, Philadelphia has remained a city of neighborhoods, and the stories here aptly reflect that ethos. Each of the 15 tales is set in a different neighborhood. We read about characters in South Philly, Strawberry Mansion, East Falls, Fishtown, Frankford, and Chestnut Hill. And as in all good noir fiction, all the characters are in some way stuck in a situation that looks bleak and will only get bleaker.

Noir is a notoriously tough term to define. Critics and readers of crime fiction have long battled over its use and misuse. Is it a genre or a sub-genre? Does crime have to be involved? Is it a set of conventions simply used to convey effect, or is it something that encompasses a worldview?

The simplest way I can define noir is to say it deals with the dark places that other fiction tends to avoid. While some crime (and horror) fiction presents characters with dark hearts going down dark streets, in noir we see the things that happen in the shadows of those already dark streets. Noir is about the darkest places.

In Keith Gilman's story "Devil's Pocket," a worn-out former cop must face the sordid realities of the continual decay of his Grays Ferry neighborhood. After all the years he spent arresting the bad guys, he now must live alongside them, wondering why life never gets better.

In Halimah Marcus' "Swimming," a psychotherapist in Narberth must deal not only with the secrets of his own past, but how one of his patients is now under threat from those same sins. There's even a femme fatale to make things interesting.

Other stories deal with kidnapping, secret clubs for the rich, grifters, and buried bodies coming to light again. Dennis Tafoya's excellent "Above the Imperial," about the small-time life of a small-time stoner thief, and Jim Zervano's "Your Brother, Who Loves You" with its clever title playing on the meaning of Philadelphia are both excellent.

Romano has divided the book into four sections - "City of Bursts," "The City of Otherly Love," "The Faker City," and "Those Who Forget the Past. . . ." The stories within each are thematically linked, although I found those in the first section to be a bit of a hodgepodge. It's the last section with stories set in Philadelphia's past that for me had the most punch.

As Romano notes in his introduction, for many people Philadelphia will always be the city of the Founding Fathers, Ben Franklin, the Liberty Bell, and all that good-government American myth. But Philadelphia is also the birthplace of the dark side of the American Experiment. While Washington and Adams and Jefferson were coming to grips with our new democracy, novelist Charles Brockden Brown was penning tales rife with ax murderers and con men set in and around Philadelphia.

This literary tradition in the city continued throughout the 19th century with such writers of lurid tales as Edgar Allan Poe and George Lippard. These sensational, gothic, horrific tales are the seeds from which noir is born in the 20th century.

I am very surprised that Romano makes no mention of Philly writer David Goodis in his introduction. If Chandler and Hammett are the kings of private eye, hard-boiled pulp, Goodis is certainly the crown prince of noir, churning out a dozen or so novels mostly set in his hometown that have been described as one long suicide note. Goodis' ghost haunts Philadelphia Noir, especially in the last group of stories set in the city's chaotic past.

Duane Swierczynski in "Lonergan's Girl" (the title itself a nod to Goodis' novel Cassidy's Girl), Cordelia Frances Biddle's "Reality," Gerald Kolpan's "Ratcatcher," and Cary Holladay's "Ghost Walk" all skillfully bring this collection home to its birthright. These are dark characters operating within a world of limited options, who, when faced with opportunities, make choices that sometimes have dire consequences.

This is the world of David Goodis. In the stories that wrap up this collection, characters not only need to face their own mistakes, but the stories themselves confront the strange noir history of the Quaker City, where the ghosts of our founding fathers walk alongside the ghosts of our criminals.

It's about time Akashic added Philadelphia to its noir universe. Goodis would be proud. 


In Praise of Poe

Thursday, November 5, 2009 Las Vegas Weekly 

In Praise of Poe

Hitchcock? Stephen King? CSI? Hard to imagine any of them not owing a huge debt to the legendary writer

“Edgar Allan Poe, who, in his carelessly prodigal fashion, threw out the seeds from which so many of our present forms of literature have sprung, was the father of the detective tale, and covered its limits so completely that I fail to see how his followers can find any fresh ground which they can confidently call their own ... On this narrow path the writer must walk, and he sees the footmarks of Poe always in front of him.” – Arthur Conan Doyle 

This year marks the bicentennial of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, and Poe’s influence on American literature and culture shows no sign of abating. Poe, the sower of seeds, Doyle called him. Like some literary Johnny Appleseed, Poe traverses the landscape of American culture, whole genres springing up in his wake. The mystery/detective story. Science fiction. Psychological horror. Poe is our avatar for all that is spooky and macabre, but his influence spreads much further than Stephen King’s novels. You can find Poe in music, comic books and movies. His caricatured visage adorns all manner of products and promotions, especially during the Halloween month. Poe is an omnipresent force in America.

Poe is not only the most famous American author in the world, meaning more people in the world have heard of him than any other American writer, but he is also the most influential American author. Lots of authors have impressed some large footprints—Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Twain, Hemingway, King—but none has provided so long a path to follow. Poe is like that Jesus in the maudlin “Footprints in the sand” story. At the end of their lives, writers look back and see only one set of tracks, but it’s not because Poe has carried them. If they look closely they can see how they have trudged through a trail already blazed. Authors may veer from Poe’s path, but many of them began their journey in his footprints.

Not all writers have loved him. Poe’s contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson, derisively referred to him as the “jingle man,” and James Russell Lowell versified a very mixed appraisal:

"Here comes Poe with his Raven, like Barnaby Rudge—

Three-fifths of him genius, and two-fifths sheer fudge"

Henry James once wrote that “enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection,” and T.S. Eliot referred to Poe’s works as marked by “the intellect of a highly gifted young person before puberty.” Walt Whitman was kinder to Poe’s memory. Of all the major poets invited to the dedication of Poe’s reburial in 1876, Whitman was the only one to attend, but his appraisal of Poe’s genius had a caveat. Poe, he claimed, is “among the electric lights of imaginative literature, brilliant, dazzling, but with no heat.” Poe dazzles, but leaves the reader cold.

So if these members of the Highbrow American Lit Club don’t value Poe, who does? How can he be so enormously influential if he’s just a primitive, pre-pubescent, jingling Fudgsicle of a writer?

In 1841, Poe became the literary editor for a Philadelphia periodical, Graham’s Magazine, and in the first issue, he published his own short story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” In a later letter, Poe called this tale something “in a new key.” It featured an extraordinarily intelligent “detective” (although not referred to as such in the story), C. Auguste Dupin, who, with his faithful but obtuse friend, solves a seemingly insoluble crime. Two women have been brutally murdered, one stuffed up a chimney and one nearly beheaded, then thrown from a window. The door and windows of the murder room were locked from the inside. Dupin carefully combs the crime scene and by using a faculty Poe terms “ratiocination,” figures out how the murder was committed and who did it. Sound familiar?

With this one tale, Poe invented the most popular modern genre of literature: the mystery detective story. All mysteries since follow the formula Poe set forth in his Dupin tales (he would write two more over the years, plus two other mystery stories): a baffling crime; a detective who uses deductive reasoning to read clues and discover a solution; an observant but less astute companion who, as narrator, also stands in for the reader; an inept police force. However the most important element of Poe’s tales of ratiocination is the way they focus not on the crime or the solution, but on the very steps the detective takes to unravel the tangled skein. The reader is engaged not by the crime, but by the detailed description of the puzzle as it is put together.

Richard Kopley, author of Edgar Allan Poe and the Dupin Mysteries, finds this attraction to the detective’s process paramount: “I think we are engaged by what our minds can accomplish, and the detective story intensifies our focus on intellectual skill. I think we’re interested in what can be determined by a really powerful intellect. And if it happens to be criminals who are caught, then fine, but I don’t think that’s the heart of it. I think the heart of it is how’d he do it. What was the process of thought?”

Doyle admittedly borrowed Poe’s formula wholesale when he created Sherlock Holmes. Although many more mystery writers trace their direct influence back to Doyle’s Holmes, who is by far the most recognized fictional detective ever created, it is Poe’s Dupin who engendered Sherlock. Doyle may have written the words to his tales, but the ink he used was pure Poe.

The mystery detective genre is not the only one that Poe has influenced. You can find Poe’s mark in science fiction, as well. Poe understood early that a fantastic story succeeds when a reader believes it to be true. This is the fundamental difference between fantasy and science fiction genres. In a fantasy novel, characters have strange powers that the reader just accepts without explanation. It’s magic. But in science fiction, extraordinary occurrences are given plausible (or seemingly believable) reasons. It’s advanced technology.

So when Poe writes about a trip to the moon, or a journey to the South Pole, or a balloon voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, the reader is provided with data and detailed explanations of how it all happens. However, in Poe’s day, there was no literary genre for science fiction, so his tales in this vein often played out as hoaxes on the reading public. Some (not all) readers thought these fantastic journey tales of Poe’s were true accounts. By detailing the impossible, whatever remained, however improbable, must be the truth. Science fiction gives the illusion that the impossible is possible.

In Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, the titular hero goes on a sea voyage to the “warm regions” of the South Pole. According to Kopley, Poe relied on actual sea chronicles in writing his text: “The specific details that Poe provided may have occasionally slowed readers, but they also probably yielded a sharper contrast for the sensations of the novel. Strengthening the verisimilitude of the novel was Pym’s earnest appeal to ‘progressing science.’”

Poe imbued these “science fiction” works with a false reality that differentiated them from works of the fantastical, of which he had already become a master. Pym, a novel that few now read, was an enormous influence on works as diverse as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Henry James’ The Golden Bowl, H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. As Poe developed the formulaic template for the mystery story, Jules Verne, along with H.G. Wells, provided the same service for science fiction. And Verne not only used Poe’s balloon and moon-voyage tales as inspiration, but even wrote a sequel to Poe’s Pym, The Sphinx of the Ice Fields.

Perhaps Poe’s greatest influence, because it is so evident in the iconic image of Poe as the Master of the Macabre, is how he shaped the genre of horror, in both literature and film. In fact, most American horror can trace its lineage back to a literary tradition in which Poe flourished.

When he moved to Philadelphia in 1838, there was already a rich tradition of gothic horror writing in the city. Charles Brockden Brown, the first American to adapt the tropes of European gothic to an American setting, situated his gothic novels in and around urban Philadelphia. Brown also transformed the genre by removing the supernatural elements and replacing them with a very American threat, something the scholar Frederick Frank has called the “individual potential for evil in a new society.” Just as we citizens have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Philadelphia Gothic tells us that we also have the potential for death, murder and pursuit of destruction. Philadelphia Gothic is about the criminal element. European Gothic is haunted by spectres and mad monks. In America we are at the mercy of serial killers.

And this Philadelphia Gothic became the standard for much of the American Gothic writing to follow. Poe was no exception. Before he lived in Philadelphia, his horror tales were more grounded in a European Gothicism. But while Poe was in Philadelphia, living and writing and publishing in the tradition of Philadelphia Gothic, his works underwent a transformation. The ancestral curses and predatory spirits that haunt his characters in tales such as “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” are replaced by characters haunted by themselves. In his tale “William Wilson,” the narrator is pursued to his death by a doppelganger of himself. In “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat,” mad men stalk, abuse and murder their companions.

If Poe did not perfect the horror story, he certainly crafted stories of such power that they became templates for most horror writers who followed in his wake. Through these stories, Poe has haunted American culture ever since. Sure, there are other writers who have created powerfully influential horror tales, like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Fitz-James O’Brien, but by the time the 20th century rolled around, it was Poe’s macabre tales left standing on the shelves. 

Poe is the writer to whom Lovecraft and Peter Straub and Stephen King hearken, as well as mystery writers such as Laura Lippman and Lisa Scottoline. Several books have recently been published that mark Poe’s influence. Two anthologies have sprung from the Mystery Writers of America, whose yearly Edgar awards are like the Oscars for mystery and crime authors: In the Shadow of the Master, edited by Michael Connelly; and On a Raven’s Wing, edited by Stuart M. Kaminsky.

Another anthology edited by Ellen Datlow is entitled Poe: 19 New Tales of Suspense, Dark Fantasy and Horror, and features stories that reflect the grotesque and fantastical in Poe’s work. Contributors Gregory Frost, John Langan and Laird Barron are not writing pastiche Poe with the Ushers returning for further vengeance, but rather using the ideas and moods of such Poe tales as “The Imp of the Perverse,” “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Cask of Amontillado” to help engender their own stories.

Connelly’s Shadow is a collection of Poe’s own works, 13 stories, two poems and an excerpt from Pym, interspersed with 19 short tribute-essays by best-selling authors. Stephen King writes about the “genius” of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” one of Poe’s most famous tales, depicting a killer’s confession to his seemingly motiveless murder of an old man. King acknowledges that Poe “invented the modern detective story,” but he goes further: “Few are aware that he created the first work of criminal sociopathy in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’” King calls 20th-century crime writers “the children of Poe.”

The other essays in Shadow pursue the same idea. The charm of these tributes is that they are not turgid academese written for professors. These authors write for their own popular audience, the Common Reader, the lifeblood of Poe’s audience in his own time. Most of the authors, including Nelson DeMille, Sue Grafton, Laura Lippman, Lisa Scottoline and Jeffrey Deaver, reveal their first encounter with Poe’s works, then go on to emphasize their indebtedness to him (if only Poe could collect royalties from beyond the grave). That so many best-selling authors would feel an affinity for Poe, would feel such a familial bond 160 years after his death, is astounding. This is the cult of Poe. I can think of no other writer who garners this kind of outpouring. Other great authors are admired and placed upon pedestals, but how many are considered the parent of so many flourishing genres?

Included in Shadow are illustrations by Harry Clarke, a stained-glass artist and book illustrator of the early 20th century. Clarke’s illustrations for an edition of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination are as grim, dark and sensational as the stories themselves. And here’s where one can see Poe’s influence begin to spread even past the boundaries of his own genre. The American comic-book artist Jerry Robinson worked on DC Comics’ Batman series in the 1940s and created both Robin and the Joker. One of Robinson’s beloved books from childhood was the Clarke edition of Poe’s Tales. Art and comics historian Christopher Couch sees clear affinities between the Clarke illustrations and Robinson’s artwork in Batman.

When Couch interviewed Robinson, it was the Clarke book that Robinson pulled from his own shelves to highlight his influences. Couch also relates, “When Bill Finger, the writer, and Jerry Robinson, the artist, were creating the first Batman stories, the ones that included the great villains that have become central to the media of Batman, they lived near the Poe Cottage in the Bronx, and they would sit outside the cottage and talk about what they wanted to do in the stories, looking for inspiration from the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe.”

The tales of Poe can also be found in American film. Not only have there been a plethora of adaptations of Poe’s work for the screen, but Poe’s presence as a creator of suspense has also influenced the entire genre of suspense films. Alfred Hitchcock acknowledged his own debt to Poe: “Very likely it’s because I was so taken with the Poe stories that I later made suspense films. I don’t want to seem immodest, but I can’t help comparing what I’ve tried to put in my films with what Edgar Allan Poe put in his novels: a completely unbelievable story told to the readers with such a spellbinding logic that you get the impression that the same thing could happen to you tomorrow.”

Edgar Allan Poe is like a ghost haunting American culture, inhabiting the dark corners and lonely spaces of so many genres and art forms. Although he was not at first accorded respect by the literary establishment of America, his spirit has outlasted his critics. The phantom of Poe lives on. Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote, “If every man who receives a cheque for a story which owes its springs to Poe were to pay a tithe to a monument for the master, he would have a pyramid as big as that of Cheops.” Poe’s legacy endures in his own work and in the varied works of succeeding generations of authors. Poe, the sower of seeds, the trailblazer, the ghost.


Dope Thief by Dennis Tafoya

Thursday, July 23, 2009 Las Vegas Weekly


Tafoya's Thief is a nuanced character study--with an extraordinary finish

Dope Thief

By Dennis Tafoya

St Martin’s Minotaur. 291 pp.


“Ray was thirty and he felt like he’d come to the end of the life he’d been leading. He just didn’t know if that meant he was going to change or if he was going to die.”


Dope Thief is the debut novel of Dennis Tafoya and, while it bears all the hallmarks of a crime novel, it is also something more, a finely nuanced character study of a criminal trying to get out of the relentless downward spiral of his crimes. Ray is a small-time crook whose new racket is posing as a DEA agent, raiding drug houses and confiscating the money and drugs. Of course, his luck runs out and he finds himself on the run from criminals more ruthless and more violent than himself.


The first two-thirds of the novel read like a typical crime story: “there was only so much luck and then it was gone . . . It couldn’t go on forever. Everyone was high. Everyone was stupid. Everyone had guns.”


However, this isn’t really a plot-driven, genre book. Nor is Dope Thief a noir novel. Ray, like most noir protagonists, is a fallen character about to take an even greater fall. His life descends from one circle of hell to the next. Just as he escapes one torturous punishment, another is awaiting just around the bend. But Tafoya provides Ray with an un-noirlike extended coda, not just to wrap up the storyline, but to bring his character to fruition, to resolve the real conflicts of his life, to tell the story of a man trying to make a life and family for himself.


Even when he’s on the job, casing a meth lab, Ray can’t keep his mind from constantly drifting, reminiscing, fantasizing about the life he could have had, or the life he might have one day, if only he’d get a break. But every time he starts to believe, he’s reminded of the cold hard facts of a bleak world: ““Maybe it was all six kinds of bullshit, and you just made a choice about what illusion to believe.”


Dope Thief also begins like a father/son tale with the father missing. Ray’s father was also a small time criminal and is now in jail. The son hates the old man, but can’t help from following in his footsteps. The father’s absence in the opening is an unmistakable void, something missing, like a skipped heartbeat or a caught breath. Ray doesn’t need him, but he must come to grips with his legacy.


Ray spends lots of time thinking about his own family, or lack thereof, and observing an associate’s family life. He wonders about the families he’s destroyed and blunders into making one of his own. Through it all is the constant doubt: “Just grit your teeth and give it up.” At times, I thought Tafoya over-wrote some of these scenes, especially the ones between father and son (I wonder what this novel would have been like with only the ghost of the father to haunt Ray), but that’s a small caveat in a novel so rich.


Dope Thief is a novel that took me by surprise. Tafoya’s prose alternates between a staccato, hard-boiled cadence and a beautiful, near florid prose style, like a mid-career Bruce Springsteen album. Dope Thief could be all the stories of Darkness on the Edge Town (and a few from The River) rolled into one narrative, characters searching for meaning and a way to make a life on the streets at night.


I wondered about Dope Thief’s designation as a crime novel because it’s not really a plot-driven genre narrative. But this is a crime novel, filled with criminals and the crimes they commit. The difference is in it’s tone and resolutions. In the final ninety pages, the full coda that Tafoya gives us elevates his book to the extraordinary. Ray wants something more. He cannot escape his past, but longs to have what his father could never provide, a sense of family And Dope Thief, in the end, is about just that: a man trying to make a family even though he feels he doesn’t deserve one.



Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America by Jay Parini

Thursday, Jan 29, 2009 Las Vegas Weekly

Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America

by Jay Parini

Doubleday, 385 pp.

Reviewed by Edward Pettit

Jay Parini’s latest book, Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America, plots the course of America’s Manifest Literary Destiny. As the title suggests, Parini has chosen a baker’s dozen of seminal American works “that helped to create the intellectual and emotional contours of this country,” from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn toJ ack Kerouac’s On the Road. Each left an indelible imprint on the American character.

In his introduction, Parini argues that this is not a greatest-hits of American literature. There is no Scarlet Letter or Great Gatsby. He also excludes poetry, because, he writes, verse only really affects the “tiny group who actually read poetry.” An exception might be made for Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, but I think Parini is probably correct: Poetry has yet to change the course of American culture.

Parini, a professor at Middlebury College, is the author of books of criticism (on Theodore Roethke) and biographies (on Robert Frost, John Steinbeck and William Faulkner), as well as several novels and collections of poetry. He’s an academic who consistently writes for a wide readership, a professor for the common reader. His novel about Leo Tolstoy’s final years, The Last Station, is currently being made into a movie.

Each chapter in Promised Land focuses on one book, with each divided into four parts: a thumbnail sketch of the book’s importance; a historical context for the writer and the work; a description of the main body; and a case for the work’s legacy. The books’ cultural and political climates are often as important as their content. In his chapter on William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, Parini describes 1856 America, with its states heading toward disunion and its westward expansion coming to define the country’s “Manifest Destiny” credo. “Bradford’s account of the early Pilgrim adventures offered an alternative reality,” a society of “fiercely united and determined men and women” who would create America’s mythic first Thanksgiving. In 1856, the country needed a unifying myth, and Bradford’s fit the bill.

Parini has written a kind of guide to reading these works. Each chapter could serve as an excellent introduction to the books, and indeed, reading Promised Land made me want to read, or re-read, most of these seminal American books. I write “most” because I’m not sure what literary pleasure would be gained by reading Dr. Benjamin Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care.

A few other odd choices help Parini’s work stand out. There are chapters on Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and the little-known immigrant narrative The Promised Land, by Mary Antin. Parini makes strong cases for Antin and Spock, but his allegiance to Carnegie seems more about that work’s influence on Parini’s own life.

Several themes run through Promised Land, and as it progresses, one can see the connections among the books. America’s “outward expansion” is reflected in Plymouth Plantation and The Journals of Lewis and Clark. The “inward exploration” of the American mind is developed in Franklin’s autobiography and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Later books, such as On the Road, encapsulate both inward and outward journeys.

Of course, many of the books deal with democracy, independence and race. These books speak to each other, some making promises and others reminding us to keep them. Parini consistently reminds us that all 13 are nodal books of the American character.

Sometimes these broad, sweeping statements seem too trite for a serious critic of American literature, but Parini backs up his rhetoric with detailed analysis. And, for the scholar itching to point out books that were omitted, the author has included an appendix of 100 more great American works, and a short paragraph about the importance of each.

Still, Promised Land left me a little cold, providing one serious discussion after another, each like a dose of American medicine. Most of these books are works to be studied more than enjoyed, so Parini’s book falls into a pattern, like 13 lectures in a row. Taken individually, each is fascinating and deep. But after the first half-dozen, one needs a little pulp fiction to enliven the palate.


Once Were Cops by Ken Bruen

Thursday, Jan 1, 2009  Las Vegas Weekly

The King James of Noir

Cops takes Bruen’s no-nonsense approach to the extreme

Once Were Cops

by Ken Bruen

St Martin's Minotaur. 294 pp.

Reviewed by Edward Pettit

Ken Bruen has been perfecting his hard-boiled prose for a little over 10 years now. His finely crafted noir novels seem to get sparser, tougher and grimmer with each new one published. And there have been two dozen of these gems in that prolific decade. His latest, Once Were Cops, takes another step along his unique path to tell a crime story in the fewest words possible.

Michael O’Shea is an Irish cop, one of the Gardaí, on loan to the New York City Police Department. However, this is no Irish-bumpkin-let-loose-in-the-Big-City kind of story. Shea, as he styles himself, is a psychopathic killer who leaves a string of bodies in his wake. A few have suspected the killer that lurks inside him, but Shea’s own cleverness, coupled with his fearsome demeanor, has always kept him one step ahead of the authorities.

Noir master Jim Thompson worked this scenario in a couple of his greatest novels, The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280, in which small-town sheriffs use their guile to mask dark, murderous hearts. Bruen plows the same terrain, but Thompson’s sherriffs are mere farm boys compared to Shea. His killing fury is buried so deep inside him that, when unleashed, it erupts like a cold storm and he loses consciousness of his actions:

Then there’s the zoning, from the time I was a child, I’d go someplace in my mind, a cold place and it’s like seeing the world through fog or very heavy glass and what I most want is to do damage, biblical damage, it’s beyond rage, more like a controlled fury that oh so carefully watches, then strikes ...

My Mother used to say,

“Shea lives in another room.”

A room covered in ice and fierceness.

There are two overlapping narratives in Once Were Cops: Shea’s first-person voice alternating with a third-person point of view of his NYC Police partner, Kurt Browski. Later in the novel, the POV shifts to a former cop-turned-investigative reporter, Joe Mulloy, on the trail of a brutal serial killer who is preying upon young women in New York. Browski is nicknamed Kebar because of his weapon of choice, the short, lethal K-bar pipe he uses to tame his suspects. In any other book, Kebar would be the bad cop.

Bruen, in all his novels, likes to take the conventions of noir and crime one step further. The reader expects the punch. But Bruen whacks the reader senseless with a pipe, or more usually an Irish hurley stick, to the temple. Blood flows. What just hit me? Did he really just do that to a character?

More than once, while reading a Bruen novel, I’ve wondered what dark dreams must haunt him, his characters wracked with a Dantean pain. Then I realize it’s his masterful prose, the lyrical Celtic expression wrapped around the iron bar of hardboiled American idiom. Beating a guy with a hurley stick, Shea thinks that, “to hear that whoosh of the bat, it was like the darkest music.” Or when he runs into Jack Taylor, the Irish PI from another of Bruen’s series, drinking in a bar, Shea comments:

I saw a photo of Beckett in a mag once and fuck, more lines on his face than the ordnance map of the country.

Taylor’s face would have given him a close run.

The lines were imbedded, like with a very sharp knife.

And the ones around his eyes, you just knew laughter certainly hadn’t been responsible.

Bruen’s no-nonsense prose style is a good fit for Shea. Once Were Cops seems to operate on a whole new stylistic level for contemporary crime thrillers. Looking at the pages of the novel, I almost felt it was a novel in verse, with only 20-25 lines per page, spaced out so that there’s more white space than text. This isn’t prose. The novel is an exercise in the poetics of noir, each line aphoristically phrased to pack the sharpest, most damaging, biblically damaging, punch. Bruen is like the King James of noir, and an Irish one at that, weaving his spell of dark music, his pale rider coming out of the whirlwind to bring down the hammer of kingdom come.