Tuesday, July 24, 2007

THE CONCRETE MAZE by Steven Torres

Dorchester Books, July, 2007, $7.99, ISBN: 084395969X

Author, Steven Torres is perhaps better known for his Precinct Puerto Rico Mysteries, which combine local colour with a commentary and violence that belies his natural and understated prose. His latest novel, The Concrete Maze, not only ups the darkness inherent in Torres’s work, but shifts location to a more traditionally noir territory: the Bronx.

It’s a move that works well for Torres. His excellent, highly readable prose and ability to craft driven, intriguing characters transfer well to this darkly urban setting.

When Marc’s uncle, Tio Louis, discovers his thirteen year daughter missing and apparently in the company of an older man, it’s only the start of a series of dark events that will force both men to confront their personal morality. Overcome with rage, he sets out to recover his daughter and to hell with anyone who stands in his way. Marc, who’s a decent guy, finds himself being pulled along for the ride and pretty soon is not only plunged into the dark places of NYC, but along with Tio Louis is forced to confront the boundaries of his own personal morality.

Torres’s natural and conversational style set the reader up from page one. Placing us firmly on the side of our protagonist, Marc. He’s an amiable companion and it’s this likeable style that helps makes the punches, when they come, even harder on the reader. In fact, the story seems, at first, to amble along so naturally that when the twists come, they blindside the reader as much as the characters.

In fact, if the book has any problems the one that strikes this reviewer most is that, at times, Marc’s narration can seem almost too innocent for a character who has lived his life in the Bronx and must surely know something of the corruption that goes on beneath the world. I’m not talking simple knowledge here, but at times it feels as though Marc has been too much of an observer throughout his life and this strikes the occasional false note. Perhaps one can see the necessity for this, to set Marc up in contrast to his ex-serviceman uncle, whose rage erupts violently from the beginning of the novel. And certainly, one can see Marc harden over the course of the novel as he confronts his own morality, but the nice guy card seems a little overplayed at times. However, Torres’s writing and his urgent plot pull us through, and any such criticism is probably nitpicking on this reviewer’s behalf.

The story is built upon the idea of the sudden and disruptive intrusion of violence into the lives of our characters and the revelations of layers, not just in the psychological states of Marc and Tio Louis, but in the crisply realised Bronx backdrop that starts off familiar and degenerates into a dark, unsettling world of amorality that forces our characters to make difficult, emotionally driven choices. There are standard thriller elements here – corruption, conspiracy – but Torres ensures that the action remains personal to our characters. There are larger crimes, but they are not the focus so much as the personal injustice that drives our characters in their quest. There are two scenes towards the end of the novel – which cannot be discussed without giving too much away – that stood out for this reviewer. While both revolved around larger crimes, it was the personal aspects of each scene that ultimately became the most affecting.

Like the best hardboiled and noir stories, The Concrete Maze takes otherwise normal characters and thrusts them into situations that test their morality and assumptions to the limit. This is where we see the need for Marc’s apparent innocence in contrast to Tio Louis. To understand just how far a man may be pushed in an emotionally volatile situation.

The corruption of the innocent is a powerful motivator in many crime stories, but Torres only uses that as a jumping off point to explore what happens when the emotional resonance of the crime strikes deeply to the heart of his characters, and the final resolution is at once as surprising as it is satisfactory. But for all the resolutions involved, Torres makes us distinctly aware that things have changed for our characters; that their views have been shaken and their world has been changed by the events of this novel. For Torres, violence and death are not simply plot points, but are tools used to explore his characters, to push them to breaking point and possibly beyond.

There are no easy ethical answers on offer here, and Torres wisely refrains from moralising too deeply, even through his protagonist. What remains is a smoothly written, tightly plotted and, above all, personally affecting thriller. Torres, no matter the setting, is a highly skilled author, and The Concrete Maze is his gripping, intelligent and dark tour through the streets of New York that the tourists hope they never have to see.

Russel McLean for crimescenescotland.com, 25 July 2007