Sunday, April 1, 2007

Review of Soul Patch

Secrets. They bind people who want nothing to do with each other together. They drive people who need each other apart. They bring uncertainty and guilt with each new day and, in the end, they are always impossible to keep.

In Soul Patch, (Bleak House, 2007) Reed Farrel Coleman’s follow up to the critically acclaimed The James Deans, private-eye cum wine merchant Moe Prager finds himself swallowed by secrets. He is haunted by the knowledge that he let his wife’s older brother slip away from him years ago when he had been hired to find him. Moe and his father-in-law, the only other person who knows, are engaged in a contest of wills, to see who breaks first.

While Moe is preoccupied with this secret, which threatens his marriage, his old friend, Larry McDonald, NYPD’s chief of detectives, comes around with a tape and asks Moe to listen to it. Moe does. It’s an illicit recording of a small time drug suspect offering to talk about the murder of a real drug kingpin who died years ago. Moe doesn’t get it, and when McDonald asks Moe to help try and cover up the fact that some old cops were the dead kingpin’s payroll back in the day Moe refuses. When McDonald turns up dead of an apparent suicide Moe no longer has the option of saying no. An offer of information regarding his long missing brother-in-law from Queens District Attorney Richard Fishbein, makes sure he stays motivated.

Coleman brings a depth of feeling to his PI that is often missing in the genre. Moe is a complex character pulled in many different directions by conflicting emotions. Boredom, loyalty, fear, anger and regret all combine in Moe’s breast to drive him forward. He is a different breed than fictional investigators like Lew Archer, or Philip Marlowe, who are largely absent from their own stories. Moe is tortured, but not in the clich├ęd drunken private investigator way. He’s made some mistakes and had some bad luck, but he’s a family man, not a brooding loner, whose comfort is found at the bottom of a bottle. He is deeply concerned about how his actions, and the secrets he is dredging up, will affect those around him.

Coleman has written a fine, elegiac novel, brimming with regret and sadness. Moe is a melancholy man and he is surrounded by a melancholy Brooklyn; a place Coleman knows so well it is more of a character than a setting. It is also a subject which brings out Coleman’s eloquent side. For Coleman,

Coney Island is a dirty, dark-hearted place, a place that once was and no longer is. Rain washes nothing but the good away in Coney Island. And when the rain drives the visitors back to their cars and subways, they take their happy memories with them. In their wake, only the truth of the place remains; the moldering garbage, the rusted and crumbling rides, empty arcades and sideshow spielers pitching their rigged games to a crush of absent hordes.”

It is writing like that which keeps Soul Patch from being just another private eye story.

Coleman’s novel is more character driven than plot driven, which is fortunate, since his plot in this outing is predictable. There are no last minute surprises, but that’s all right. Readers will come for the mystery, but stay for the company.

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