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Monday, March 20, 2017

What You Break by Reed Farrel Coleman

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 368 pages, $27

“What You Break” is the second entry in the Gus Murphy series by Reed Farrel Coleman, a veteran of hard-boiled crime novels.

Gus is a retired police officer from Long Island, New York. When his twenty-year-old son died, Gus and his family imploded. Although it took almost the whole of the first book to understand what had happened to John Jr. (Gus’s name is John Augustus Murphy), it is soon touched upon in the second book. Gus is slowly healing both himself and his breaches with his ex-wife and daughter. Things are quietly looking up.

Gus works for a second-rate hotel. (He defends it against slander that it is a third-rate one.) He picks up passengers from Long Island’s small airport and its train station and drives them to the hotel. He also serves as the hotel detective and its nightclub’s bouncer, neither of which to this point has produced too much excitement, if you don’t count the dead body that had more to do with Gus than the hotel. In return he receives a small income and lives in one of the hotel’s rooms. It is a meager existence but one that suits the penance Gus feels he has to pay. In the Things Are Looking Up category, however, he has met a woman, Maggie, with whom he is compatible and, dare he say it, in love. Of course, in “What You Break,” things go sideways in virtually all aspects of his life.

One of Gus’s true friends is Slava, a fellow employee at the hotel. Slava saved his life in the first book. He has a mysterious past which, of course, he refuses to discuss. It is something to do with Russians and, as Gus finds out in the course of this book, Chechens. Slava, too, is paying penance for things he will not discuss with Gus. One day, as he knew it might, someone with a Russian accent has come looking for Slava, and not in a good way. Whoever is hunting Slava is cold and determined.

Just because Gus doesn’t have enough to do, his old friend, Father Bill (actually, ex-Father Bill), has asked him for a favor. He knows someone, Micah Spears, who could use Gus’s investigative skills. Micah’s granddaughter was murdered. The police caught her murderer, and he is currently neatly and tidily in prison. What more is left? Micah wants to know why she was murdered, since her killer won’t say. Asking why will bring you only heartache, thinks Gus, but takes on the case because of his friendship with Bill. But Micah has cold eyes and he, too, is as determined in his own way as the man hunting Slava.

Gus is crossing the paths of a lot of cold-eyed people, and he is under a moral obligation to keep putting himself into worlds where he is not welcome.

Coleman is a great storyteller, and it was refreshing to read a book with a linear plot, with a single narrator. (Call me old-school.) “What You Break” is in line with the fine hard-boiled tradition. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed the inevitable twists. I enjoyed the moral ambiguity.

The only criticism I would levy is about the character of Maggie. She has been used, tossed aside, and used again. She and Gus have brought baggage to their relationship. Gus brings more hurt in terms of still trying to deal with the death of his son and its aftermath. He is a warm bag of self-pity. When Maggie gets her dream fulfilled of working as an actor again, Gus gets angry because her job will take her away from him (melodramatically, maybe forever). Maggie tells Gus she will turn the job down to stay with him.

Whoa. I get Maggie’s offer. I get Gus is still hurting. I get Coleman is creating tension here. But there’s too much me-me-me to Gus’s anger. Even when he relents, I think he feels more pride in himself for HIS sacrifice than pride for her accomplishment. If this was Coleman’s intent, then, congratulations, he succeeded in how that scenario made me squirm.

That took much too much space, because I really like Coleman’s books, and that should be the emphasis. I love that he took over the Jesse Stone series after Robert B. Parker’s death. I love his Moe Prager series.

Here’s an MBTB star for “What You Break” and the overall quality of his life’s work.

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