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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Where It Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 384 pages, $17 (c2016)

Reed Farrel Coleman’s Moe Prager series is one of my favorites. As a matter of fact, maybe I’ll reread the books in the series and post reviews. That’s a worthy goal. “Where It Hurts” introduces a new character and potentially a new series.

John Augustus “Gus” Murphy is a man in pain. He used to be a Suffolk County cop on Long Island before his teenage son’s death a couple of years ago. There is so much hair-rending in the first part of the book that I was convinced that Gus had somehow caused the death of his son or failed to rescue him. It takes a long time to learn the facts of John Jr.’s death and Gus’ role in it. “Where It Hurts” is the for-better-or-worse story of Gus’ sudden emergence from his personal valley of despair.

A two-bit punk, TJ Delcamino, has been tortured and murdered. His heart-broken father, Tommy Delcamino, a two-bit career criminal, has gone to the only honest cop he ever met, Gus Murphy. Unfortunately, Gus is no longer a cop. His sorrow has taken all incentive and color from his world. He now drives a courtesy van and acts as bouncer and house detective for a two-bit hotel near a Long Island airport and a train station. Gus has contact with lots of people — commuters, hotel staff, service people, his ex-wife — but no lasting relationships. That’s the way he likes it.

A chord is touched in Gus, but not in a good way. He chases Tommy Delcamino off. How dare he assume Gus would help him with TJ because they share a common grief. Later Gus discovers Tommy knew nothing about John Jr. That is when he begins to understand that it’s not all about him anymore. But Gus no longer has the opportunity to apologize to Tommy. Someone has murdered him.

Then “Smudge,” Tommy’s sad-sack friend, shows up with Tommy’s investigative materials and a retainer fee to hire Gus. Contrary to an overwhelming sentiment to the contrary, Gus takes on the case.

Gus soon realizes he is mired in something that reeks of rotten, slimy things, much like the sewage that littered the lot where TJ’s body was found. Is it drugs? Is it prostitution? Is it corruption? Is it unvarnished greed? Why won’t the cops, some of whom were friendly to him when he was a cop, talk to him?

Coleman’s story works its way forward as Gus meets sleazy character after sleazy character. The author paints these portraits artfully. He also depicts the poor and hard-luck parts of Long Island well. Here is the final product: a book dog-paddling in a melancholy soup.

After a choppy beginning as we struggle to learn who Gus is and why he seems to be stuck in a loop of misery, the story smoothes out as Gus takes on the investigation. When Slava, the hotel’s doorman, proves an exciting, unanticipated cohort, the story really flies.

Here is what stops me from giving this book an MBTB star — certainly not the writing, which is often made of riveting, poetic stuff — Coleman could have thrown the final twist away and still stood on a cohesive, engaging story. I also couldn’t figure out why Gus wouldn’t have to worry about future attacks on his life by the ultimate culprit’s associates. I’m hoping I just missed that point.

"Where It Hurts" is one of the Edgar Award Best Story nominees for 2016.

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