Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Double Hit of Moe Prager

Walking the Perfect Square, 978-0-9792709-5-6 $13


Redemption Street 978-0-9792709-5-6 (dec’08), $13

By Reed Farrel Coleman, Busted Flush Press, ‘08

It’s been a few years since I read Reed Farrel Coleman’s third Moe Prager novel, The James Deans, but I remember being very impressed by the style and the complex nature of the plot that seemed unusually smart in an era of high concept thrillers whose complexities are often limited to plot twists over any attempt to deepen the narrative.

So I was excited to hear of Busted Flush Press’s plans to reprint the first two novels from the series, Walking the Perfect Square and Redemption Street, both of which are clearly the work of the same writer in the same series, but manage to feel like such different entities that they become more than an attempt to replay what the reader loved the first time round.

Walking the Perfect Square is a near perfect novel; a low key character piece, where ex-NYPD cop Moe Prager finds himself involved in the search for a missing college student. The more Prager digs into the boy’s life, the more he finds contradictions and anomalies that do not so much add to Prager’s impressions as detract from them; rather than building a picture, he winds up deconstructing one.

The dual narrative takes place between 1998 and 1979; a smart move whose pay off is not immediately evident. But like the best novels, its all about the denouement, and as you progress through the novel, you start to realise that the seemingly unrelated modern strand is intensely important, that its only with the passage of time that Moe can gain a true perspective on what he found while investigating Patrick’s life.

It’s a blinding read, and absorbing in a way that feels utterly unexpected. For the first two thirds of the novel, Moe seems to be walking in circles (not squares, per-se, he’ll leave that down to another character in the novel), talking to people, discovering next to zip. But there’s always this hint, this underlying sensation that something is hidden out there. That for all these conversations seem to amount to nothing, there’s more going on than Moe or we can even guess at. And while the slow burn approach could be an unwise choice in less skilled hands, we’re kept on board by Moe’s Chandlerian narration (he twists words and ideas in a way that easily evokes the debt all modern eyes owe to Marlowe) and the sheer conviction of the writing.

And there's a brilliant – near beautiful – pay-off. Barely a moment or a scene is wasted. Everything is wrapped up beautifully, although the end of the novel is hardly a case of the world being restored to order. An air of deep sadness runs through Moe’s narration, and even the twenty year gap between the investigation into Patrick and the secondary thread that runs to the late nineties fails to eliminate that touch of regret from Moe’s narration. And while there is a glimmer of hope – one that could become mawkish in the wrong hands – Coleman is a savvy enough writer to know that a glimmer is enough, that the despair and joy of life rarely balance out.

If there are problems with Walking The Perfect Square, perhaps it comes from overwriting; Coleman is a brilliant writer, but here and there the voice of this first Prager novel feels more like writing and less like natural storytelling. The narration can be dense and perhaps a little overwhelming, but does nothing to affect the overall power and beauty of the work.

But by the time Coleman brings Moe to Redemption Street, he’s got that voice down cold. Redemption Street is a far more accomplished novel, so it’s surprising to read Coleman joke in his newly written afterword that “it was the first book in history to go direct from the printer to the remainder bin”. Perhaps it was the shift of focus that surprised people. Perhaps the market wasn’t ready for a truly reflective eye; an investigative character who was every bit as fleshed out as those people whom he observed. Redemption Street feels more intensely personal – both for the author and the protagonist – than Walking the Perfect Square. Perhaps it’s the focus on Moe’s Jewish heritage – and the guilt that it brings both personally and in a far wider sense – which creates this sense. Perhaps it’s the note of longing for things long lost that plays through Moe’s search to discover what happened to that girl he crushed so deeply on in high school. Whatever it is, the energy of the writing and characterisation brings a sense of empathy to the reader that feels instantly fresh and genuine. While the Moe of Walking the Perfect Square feels almost an enigma – lost in his case, defined merely by his actions – in Redemption Street, we feel closer to him; we experience this case with him rather than through him.

By now, Moe is a more reluctant PI. He’s licensed, but he keeps his badge in a drawer. He’s looking at running a wine store. And it takes a reminder of his own past to make him think about doing anything close to the kind of work he’s licensed to do.

Threads run through from Walking the Perfect Square and seem to explode in this novel; hints dropped from the 1998 narrative are explored deeper here, and as such we feel closer to Moe; the character less distanced to us than in the first novel, where Moe was – despite his distinctive voice – more of a camera on events than an actual participatory subject.

The violence seems ramped up as well, with Moe undergoing torture both in a physical and mental fashion throughout the book. But these moments feel perfectly justified by the novel, which needs to put its protagonist through the ringer in order to achieve its goals. Would we be so attached to Moe if this investigation were a walk in the park? If he weren’t looking backwards as much as forwards?

Its rare to see a series character who develops so well over a series, and kudos to Busted Flush for allowing us to return to the roots of Moe Prager. Reading the series in sequence, we encounter a character who is allowed to grow and mature; whose world becomes clearer the more it is fractured – only when past and present collide do we ever truly understand the events that shape not only our protagonist, but those people who surround him.

Add to this a voice filled with genuine heart, that knows suffering and joy in sometimes unequal measures, and an author whose fiendishly clever plots unfold in such a low key fashion that its easy to be taken by surprise and you have one of the best modern crime series currently being written. It’s a delight to know that readers – like myself – who missed Moe the first time round will have a chance to catch up on these novels; to discover some of the best prose they’ll read in years, and a character whose evolution throughout a series feels so absolutely genuine, you’ll soon be thinking of him as an old friend.

Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland 30/07/08