Published originally in 1998 as Manhattan Nocturne, Colin Harrison’s literary thriller is back, now resurrected as Manhattan Night, perhaps in keeping with its soon to be released cinematic adaptation under that title. Nocturne, Night–like the cliché rose, a novel by any other name will smell the same, and in the case of this Harrison novel it is not quite all that sweet.
Manhattan tabloid columnist Porter Wren, although happily married with two small children, meets a beautiful young widow at a party, and almost immediately begins an affair. It seems the woman, Caroline Crowley, wants his help, and although he doesn’t really have a clue neither about what she wants, nor why she has chosen him, he is quite willing to play her Sir Lancelot. Turns out her problem has something to do with video tapes shot by Caroline’s mysteriously deceased movie director husband, but what it is she is not yet prepared to reveal. Indeed it takes a good two thirds of the novel for him and for the reader to find out just exactly what it is she wants him to do. A beautiful, sexy damsel in distress it would seem is motive enough for any red blooded male.
When it turns out that his affair, as affairs are wont to do, begins to create problems with his wife, with his globe-trotting employer, with the New York police, and even with the widow herself, Wren is faced with the possibility of losing everything if he can’t solve the lady’s problem.
The story is told from Wren’s point of view, and unlike many first person narrators he is not a particularly admirable character. His prose tends toward the flowery and the self-indulgent. He is fond of larding it with lists of pithy observations about the state of the city. Read this, he seems to be saying, am I not a writer? Pretentious? Sure: note the novel’s opening. “I sell mayhem, scandal, murder, and doom. Oh, Jesus I do, I sell tragedy, vengeance, chaos, and fate. I sell the sufferings of the poor and the vanities of the rich.” Although one must admit, it is the rare thriller narrative that like Wren would be willing to wax eloquent about walking children to school and poopie diapers. His self-indulgence is even more evident in his cavalier attitude about his relationship with Caroline. It is difficult for the reader find his a sympathetic voice.
Indeed, the book is filled with unsympathetic characters. Other than Wren’s wife, a hand surgeon of some repute, the novel’s pages are filled with nasty people: the promiscuous widow is engaged to a young banker, her deceased husband was obsessed with filming the horrors of life even if he had to create some of his own, Wren’s employer is a wealthy tyrant, police officials are politicians, lawyers, big time and small, are quite willing to look the other way to further their interests. Wren is a noir anti-hero in a vicious world.
Manhattan Night is a quick, dark read that builds to an unexpected and perhaps not completely satisfying climax.