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My FLBSO, Dave, mentioned that if I hadn't tried Reed Farrel Coleman, I oughta. Boy, was he right.

Walking the Perfect Square. Moe Prager quits his job as an NYPD cop short of making Detective, thanks to an embarrassing office encounter with a sheet of a paper on the floor that ended in severe knee torture. This may seem a bit far-fetched, until you realize that this moment in Moe's past occurs in the late seventies, a time relatively out of reach of modern joint surgery and physiotherapy. In this forced retirement, Moe is trying to scare up the scratch to open a wine shop with his brother. Then, a cop-friend of his comes along as the proxy of a Mr ConnectionsWithMoney, and an offer Moe will find it very hard to refuse: help us out and you'll have enough cash to open your wine shop and a smooth road past the city business regulators. Refuse to help us out, and, well, no money and a harder road. Why Moe? Despite his forced retirement, Moe has that one shining moment in his career when he found the young girl that nobody else could fine (largely by chance, he continually tries to convince).

What can he do, but proceed? Coleman's love of the city as she lived is evident: this is a hell of a time to be wandering around the streets of the Big Apple, and famous spots of the punk underground figure prominently, either named directly, or barely concealed (anyone with a reasonable memory of music history of the time might enjoy playing spot-the-scene).

Coleman brackets the narrative in the with a modern-day framing story that works perfectly. Walking the Perfect Square sets up the best and worst moments of Prager's adult life: it sets the foundation for who he will be in all the forthcoming novels -- a loving, family man forced into hard choices as a result of his past, and his remarkably stubborn and dogged character. By the end of this first book, you can see the overall arc of Prager's life stretching forward into the books to come: and we expect that future tales using the same frame will be loaded with irony. We expect that each book will show him moving forward through the past towards a crisis we know is coming, and towards a resolution of that crisis we can be reasonably sure will occur.

Coleman's prose is smooth, tight, and eminently readable without being simplistic. Prager is drawn in confident, spare strokes. The dialog is not showy, but it rings pretty true. The narrative is hard-boiled, without descending into cliché: Prager both is, and is not, the typical detective. He is not a super-cop, or a super detective. He is not an isolated loner. He is not mindlessly tough, nor overly forgiving. Prager seems like a real guy, with real abilities and gifts, real limitations, and real points that the reader can like, and fault him for.

Redemption Street. Apparently, Redemption Street was a classic sophomore slump book for Coleman. He thought it was really good, but the buying public, for whatever reason, did not. I think the answer probably lies somewhere in between. The pacing in Redemption Street is not quite as smooth as in Walking the Perfect Square; it's also possible that the historical background in the first Prager novel that might have appealed to a wider (more secular?) audience is exchanged for a historical background that's more rooted in the Jewish culture of the American north east (specifically the era of the "Borscht Belt" summering hotel resorts). A tragic incident we learned about tangentially in the first Prager book is the centrepiece of this one -- Prager is drawn into an investigation into the death of a boyhood crush. Coleman does a very good job of building Redemption Street upon the character foundation he established in Walking the Perfect Square, without really demanding that you've read the first, or wasting time in useless as-you-know-Bob rehashing of material already known from the first book.

That said, the framing narrative of the first book lays irony on with a trowel in this one. The activities of this book are set after the "past" events in book one, but before the time of book one's frame, and thus we know where Prager is headed, and the character studies in Redemption Street help paint out the sketches of that journey.

The details of the plotting do have twists and turns in them, some surprises await, but are foreseeable to a certain extent. Coleman's mystery does a bit of a double-twist in the end, showing you the right and then hitting you a bit with the left, but overall the real story here is not entirely surprising. That said, I'd urge you not to read Coleman's afterwords before you read the story, unless you like to have the plot spoilered a bit for you.

Everything that's there to like in the first book is provided here, and improved upon. The pacing is a wee bit slower, but the characters are drawn out a bit more. We get a fuller picture of Prager and his nobility and his flaws.

The Prager book that Coleman apparently hit his strong stride with was the next one in the series, The James Deans (winner of Barry, Shamus, Anthony awards; nom'd for Edgar, Gumshoe, Macavity). But I'm not at all sad that my neuroses compel me to read books "in order". Redemption Street is a good book (not perhaps as strong as the opener, but still, pretty darned good). Good enough to have me fairly eagerly looking forward to getting into the next.


If you like hardboiled crime fiction, or detective stories with protagonists that are interestingly off-centre, you really ought to try Coleman's Prager books. The entire series seems readily available in reprint editions from Busted Flush Press, and I'd strongly encourage you to support Busted Flush -- they're reprinting Daniel Woodrell as well, and he's just as worth reading as Coleman evidently is.

Highly recommended.

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October 2012

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