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NEPTUNE AVENUE by Gabriel Cohen: Book Review

Disclaimer: I’m from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and my late father was a police captain, for a time working out of the 71st precinct in Brooklyn; his father was a Russian immigrant.   Jack Leightner, the protagonist of Neptune Avenue, works out of the 71st precinct in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; his late father was a Russian immigrant.  Could I pass up this novel?  No way!

Leightner is an unhappy man, recovering from a two-year-old gunshot wound and the resultant stay in a hospital and a very recent betrayal by the woman he wanted to marry.  In the hospital he shared a room with a Russian immigrant, Daniel Lelo, and now, two years later, Lelo was shot again and this time it was fatal.

The case draws Leightner into a neighborhood that is both familiar and strange to him. Familiar because although Brooklyn has a population of 2.72 million people, it’s made up of neighborhoods.  People, especially immigrants, tend to stay in comfortable environs, surrounded by those who speak their native language and share their Old World customs; as a child Leightner spent a lot of time in this part of the borough.  Strange because the detective has been living outside of his old neighborhood for years, and his only contact with it has been his late father’s brother, with whom he has a somewhat strained relationship.

Lelo’s death brings Leightner into contact with his friend’s wife, a beautiful Russian woman to whom Leightner is immediately attracted. He is irresistibly drawn into a sexual relationship with Zhenya, but he feels she is hiding something.  Is it guilt over their affair so soon after the death of her husband?  Is it fear of a Russian mob boss who may have had ties to her husband?

The novel starts off with an unrelated case of two young black women who are found hanging, one in an apartment and the other in a garden.  Although this crime is solved, the author seems to have been glad to leave it behind and concentrate on the Russian connection.  I’m not quite sure why he began the book with that crime, perhaps only to show the different groups living within a relatively small neighborhood, sometimes getting along and sometimes at war.

Cohen makes Leightner a complicated man with an interesting back story. His father was a longshoreman in Red Hook, a notoriously tough neighborhood in Brooklyn, a man who was fine when sober but vicious when drunk.  Leightner’s mother was passive, afraid of her husband.  He had a much loved brother who died young.  And he’s divorced, with a grown son with whom he has a very tentative relationship.  He’s a man with a lot of baggage, and he knows it.  But so too has Zhenya, and perhaps that’s what brings them together.

Neptune Avenue pulls the reader right into Brooklyn, its streets, criminals, and ethnicities.  Leightner’s uncle asks him at one point, “How is it that you work so close to here but know so little about (your own people)?”  Leightner’s response is, “Your own people-it sounded like such a burden.”  Coming back to Little Odessa, as Brighton Beach is called, has brought back memories he would just as soon have kept buried.

You can find out more about the author at

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