What You Break
WHAT YOU BREAK is a remarkable book. Reed Farrel Coleman --- a journeyman author who is incapable of writing badly --- gave crime fiction one of its most memorable characters in Gus Murphy with the publication of WHERE IT HURTS in 2016.
Gus, the world-weary voice of both novels, is an ex-cop, formerly with the Suffolk County, Long Island Police Department. His life was blown up by the death of his son some years ago. Now divorced and off the force, he spends his nights employed at the Paragon Hotel, a down-at-the-heels establishment catering to business travellers near a small Long Island regional airport. He drives the hotel security shuttle during the week and serves as security for the hotel’s small but still popular bar and nightclub on the weekends. Gus is an American original, and his introduction in WHERE IT HURTS was truly an event, one that is matched and surpassed by WHAT YOU BREAK.
Gus’ involvement in two matters is the focus of this new novel. While not officially licensed as a private investigator, Gus still has the instinct and skill sets --- not to mention the contacts --- that he acquired and cultivated as a police officer. His official “public job(s)” with the hotel notwithstanding, he simply can’t help himself with respect to getting involved in other matters. One of those in WHAT YOU BREAK commences at the behest of Father Bill Kilkenny, who Gus credits with helping him get back into his life following the sudden and unexpected death of his son. Ed arranges a meeting between Gus and a man introduced as Micah Spears. Gus instinctively dislikes Spears on sight, even as he learns they have something in common.
"The plotting in both storylines is wonderful, but it is the characterization of Gus Murphy, paired with Coleman’s rough-hewn but nonetheless exquisite prose, that carries the day."
Spears also has felt the pain and loss of a family member: his adopted granddaughter, a young woman named Linh Trang, or “LT” as she called herself, was savagely murdered. Her killer was found, brought to justice and incarcerated. However, Spears wants to know the “why” behind the brutal crime. The culprit freely confessed to killing LT but has steadfastly refused to give his reasons. It is left to Gus to basically start his own, unofficial investigation as to the motive. He begins digging into the victim’s life, and Spears’ as well, but the evidence keeps sifting through his fingers, leaving him lost.
Meanwhile, Gus interjects himself into some difficulties that his friend Slava is experiencing. Slava is also employed by the hotel, and they have formed a rough but solid bond, with the condition that Gus does not ask, and Slava does not tell, anything about his past. The past, though, has come back to haunt Slava in the form of a mysterious individual who checks into the hotel late one night. It is obvious that he knows Slava, and the relationship is not necessarily a happy one. Gus takes it upon himself to follow Slava and the stranger, and soon finds himself involved as a witness in a murder investigation, even as Slava is hiding, in fear for his life. Gus’ interjection into Slava’s difficulties actually makes things worse, given that he endangers not only himself but also Maggie, his love interest. The odds are against him, even as he tries to rescue those who he holds dear to him.
The plotting in both storylines is wonderful, but it is the characterization of Gus Murphy, paired with Coleman’s rough-hewn but nonetheless exquisite prose, that carries the day. Gus is the guy you barely notice on your periphery, the service worker who would seemingly be more attention-worthy in his absence than otherwise. Coleman brings Gus, and those like him, into the foreground in a manner that renders such individuals noteworthy. As for his prose, readers will find memorable passages on virtually every page.
Those who have been following Coleman’s work over the course of his critically acclaimed but commercially underappreciated career will find that he has exceeded the expectations he has created, while readers encountering him for the first time here will undoubtedly search out his considerable bibliography while waiting for the next Gus Murphy book.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on February 10, 2017