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A Wise Guy Mystery Writer Makes Good

Reed Farrel Coleman found his calling when he took a night school class in detective fiction at Brooklyn College.
Reed Farrel Coleman found his calling when he took a night school class in detective fiction at Brooklyn College.

I was all set to do a big mystery round-up for this week; one of those "Hey, let's get a jump on summer!" cavalcades of crime and suspense novels. But as any student of detective fiction knows, the minute you think you've hatched a good plan, the universe throws a wrench into the works.

Every time I started to write my paean to the predictable excellence of new crime novels by George Pelecanos and Michael Connelly, a little guy kept muscling into my consciousness, complaining about how those best-seller boys always steal the spotlight. This wise guy writer's name is Reed Farrel Coleman and he made a good case for himself.

Admittedly, I haven't been able to stop thinking about Coleman's Moe Prager mystery series ever since one of God's own divine messengers — that is, an independent bookseller — recommended it to me last year. If life were fair, Coleman would be as celebrated as Pelecanos and Connelly. Then again, if life were fair, a hard-boiled poet like Coleman would have nothing to write about.

With a triple-decker silver handle like Reed Farrel Coleman, he sounds like the headmaster of Choate, not a working stiff who, I kid you not, holds down a day job as a commercial truck driver licensed to drive hazardous materials like nuclear waste. A Brooklyn boy who came of age in New York City's noir period of the 1970s, Coleman found his calling when he took a night school class in detective fiction at Brooklyn College. (Pelecanos and Raymond Chandler also took similar routes to hard-boiled greatness.)

Coleman has written several different mystery series, has won a slew of major mystery awards and is admired by his colleagues. Some of those famous tough guys and gals have even written heartfelt introductions to the Moe Prager novels, which were originally brought out by major publishing houses, but are currently being kept in print by small presses — Busted Flush Press and Bleak House.

There are five novels in the Moe Prager series and, together, they do what only the low-rent genre of series fiction can do: They compose a slowly evolving saga, in this case, set mostly in and around Coney Island.

Moe, our hero, is that iconic hard-boiled character: a too-smart-for-his-own-good ex-cop turned private investigator. He makes a crucial mistake in the first novel (called Walking the Perfect Square): He lies to a woman named Katy, who will become his wife, about the true fate of her missing college student brother. Moe lies out of kindness and, thus, ignores one of the golden rules of the noir world: "no good deed goes unpunished." That original sin of Moe's past haunts the novels and accrues in awful power as they go on. By the last novel in the series, graced with the Chandler-esque title, Empty Ever After, you're basically wishing for the doomed Moe to be put out of his existential misery. The fact that, throughout most of the series, it's Moe's own monstrous father-in-law who's torturing him with the threat of spilling the truth to Katy, is simply Coleman's own delicious spin on the dysfunctional family theme that's a staple of classic American detective fiction.

Coleman is a pro at executing all the other standard hard-boiled elements like brooding atmosphere and loop-de-loop plot-lines. But it's Moe's New York Jewish, part-Yuppie, part blue collar, insider-outsider sensibility that's the fresh draw here. In my favorite novel of the series, Redemption Street, Moe travels to the crumbling Catskills resort area to solve an age-old mystery (there's the past again) at a burned-out hotel. After wisecracking with a smal-town local woman who looks blankly back at him, Moe reflects:

He's right. And in honor of the wisdom of Moe's sociological insight, I'll stop acting like the native New Yorker I am and say what needs to be said and then shut up: Reed Farrel Coleman is a terrific writer. If mysteries are your poison of choice, hunt his up. It may take you a little longer to nab them, but you'll appreciate them all the more for that.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.