Hurt Machine is the seventh in Reed Farrel Coleman’s Moe Prager detective series, and given the opening, in which the 60- plus Prager announces just after a pre-wedding party for his daughter that he has been diagnosed with cancer, it may well turn out to be the last.
But when his ex-wife and partner turns up at the party and asks him to look into the murder of her estranged sister, an emergency medical technician who has been disgraced after she and her partner refused to aid a dying restaurant worker, Prager is embroiled in a complicated chain of events that has him dealing with her colleagues in the fire department angry that she has given them a bad name, reluctant witnesses and old friends eager to help with his investigation as he tries to find her killer.
There are a lot of discoveries to be made, and just when you think you’ve come to the truth, there’s something else to discover. Coleman is very good at keeping readers guessing.
Set mostly in Brooklyn and Manhattan, Coleman is almost as adept at creating a sense of place as a master like George Pelecanos is with Washington DC. Brooklyn especially almost functions as a character itself. Whether he is talking about the boardwalk at Coney Island or the newly upscale Park Slope, the Belt Parkway or Stillwell Avenue, stickball or ring-a-levio, this is as realistic a portrait of Brooklyn as you are likely to come across.
Coleman knows the finer points of Nathan’s French fries and the subtleties of Brooklyn pizza. He knows the bars where the firemen drink and those that cater to the ordinary locals. If writers are able to stake a claim to a locale, Coleman has a good case for making Brooklyn his own.
Grown old and sick, Prager is no rough guy private eye. He is as likely to collapse from too much to eat and drink as he is from fighting with some younger tough. There are women, but his current girl friend is in Vermont and the young beauties he comes across in his investigations call him grandpa.
Still, if he is not now what he has been, the years have brought him what the poet calls the philosophic mind. He has a knack for putting his insights about the human condition and life in general in pithy, almost epigrammatic, tidbits of wisdom. “It is the great folly of humanity, the search for self- knowledge and significance.” “Time to think is life’s Petri dish.” “Only in retrospect is life a simple series of easily connected dots.” The book is filled with this sort of philosophizing.
Nonetheless, Prager is committed to finding the truth. It is almost as if he is looking for one last moment of action before what might be the end. Like Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” it’s not too late to seek a newer world. He is dogged in his pursuit of the murderer, what he has lost in physical power, he makes up for with the street smarts he has gained over the years. Still he is old, and there is always a question about how he will hold up and whether he is equal to the task.
The problem I have coming to a book like Hurt Machine without having read any of the others in the series is all the references to people and events that seem to have been treated in the earlier novels. I have the feeling that everything would be more meaningful to me if I understood more about the relationship between Prager and his ex, if I knew more about Nathan Martyr who turns up as a restaurant owner late in the investigation, or if I knew what happened to Prager’s first wife. While I am bothered by not knowing as much about such things and many others, it is worth noting that the Hurt Machine is quite good enough to make me want to read the first six to find out what I’ve been missing.