Monday, September 15, 2008

Review of The Fourth Victim

Reed Farrell Coleman’s latest effort, The Fourth Victim, (Bleak House, 2008) published under his pseudonym Tony Spinosa, is an excellent novel and a good example of why Coleman may always be a cult figure, relegated to an artistic life of critical acclaim without commercial success.

The Fourth Victim picks up with his odd couple of Joe Serpe and Bob Healy, former NYPD detectives, investigating the murder and robbery of another former cop, who also happens to share a second career in home heating oil delivery with the two protagonists. The dead cop, named Rusty Monaco, happens to be the fourth victim in a string of robbery/murders of oil delivery men, and he also saved Serpe’s life once on the job. Serpe feels honor bound to look into the death and Healy feels honor bound to help Serpe.

Serpe and Healy have a strained relationship because Healy was the internal affairs investigator responsible for ending Serpe’s career. Serpe was a hot shot rule bending narc, while Healy was a law and order watcher of the watchmen. Reunited by chance years later, the two men teamed up to solve a murder in Hose Monkey, the first Tony Spinosa novel, and in the second book they are business partners and friends, although it is an uneasy friendship. Coleman’s starting point is a conventional one. Odd couplings are the stuff of Hollywood thrillers. Ask Mel Gibson and Danny Glover or Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy. Two people with different personalities come together. After some friction the two quit bickering long enough to fight a bad guy and learn something about themselves and each other in the process. It's trite, but Coleman, if he followed this well worn path, could have a bestselling series on his hands. He's a talented writer and his plots will stand up with the best of them.

Coleman rejects the easy route, however. While The Fourth Victim is firmly rooted in the tropes of the crime genre, Coleman refuses to give into the genre’s worst tendencies, which include glorifying violence and pat solutions to complex problems. In Coleman’s world murder begets murder and even good men end up being party to bad acts in the pursuit of justice. No one gets away clean, and redemption comes in small measures. Serpe and Healy do find out who killed their fellow cop, but there is no bullet filled climax. There are no witty one liners. There is no sneering bad guy who stops a well deserved slug with his face. There is no grand criminal conspiracy. There is just another body to be buried.

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