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Posts Tagged ‘Brooklyn’

CONVICTION by Julia Dahl: Book Review

Once again Julia Dahl brings readers to Jewish Brooklyn, but this time with a twist.  It’s the Crown Heights section of the borough, a neighborhood that years ago was totally Jewish and now is an uneasy mix of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Blacks, the neighborhood that was the scene of a riot in 1991 and still bears the violent scars of those three days.

Rebekah Roberts, a reporter at the sleazy tabloid the New York Trib, is looking for a news story to write, one that she’s hoping will get her a boost up the career ladder.  At a cocktail party she connects with Amanda Button, who writes the Homicide Blog, a newsletter that tracks every homicide occurring in New York City.  Rebekah and Amanda arrange to meet a couple of days after the event, and Amanda offers Rebekah the opportunity to go through letters she’s received from prisoners in the state’s penitentiaries who declare their innocence.  Perhaps there’s a real story in there, both women think.

Of course, she tells Rebekah, everyone who writes her tells her he’s been unjustly punished.  However, given that many of these men were convicted in the 80s and 90s, when DNA technology was in its infancy and the murder rate was soaring, it’s certainly possible, Amanda continues, that some of the cases weren’t investigated properly.  So Rebekah takes home several boxes of letters and is intrigued by one in particular.

DeShawn Perkins was a teenager when he was convicted of murdering his foster family–mother, father, and young sister.  At first he protested his innocence but couldn’t offer any alibi for the time the crime was committed; later, after brutal questioning that included the hint that if he didn’t confess his younger “brother” might be charged with the crime, DeShawn said he had committed the murders.  But in his letter to Amanda, he refutes his confession, tells her his alibi, and asks for her help.  He closes the letter by saying, “…somebody else killed my family and I’m paying for his crime.”

Conviction is the third in the Rebekah Roberts’ series, and it’s as strong a novel as the previous two.  Rebekah is a young woman with a past that will not let go, including the many questions she has for her mother, who abandoned her when she was a baby.  Even now that she has reunited with her mother, her mother still refuses to explain why she fled New York and left her husband and infant Rebekah behind.  So perhaps Rebekah’s choice of a career, asking questions and trying to find answers to things people would prefer to keep hidden, is a reaction to the secrets in her own life.

Julia Dahl’s characters are like people you know–people trying to do their best but with problems and emotions that get in the way.  They are all too human, and thus they make the reader respond not only to the excellent plot in this book but to the people in it, foibles and all.

Conviction is a moving story of the collision of people and cultures and the devastation that misunderstandings can bring.  It strongly resonated with me because I grew up in Crown Heights, although I left it years before this book takes place.  I know the neighborhood streets and lived only four or five blocks from where the riots began.  But you don’t need to have that personal involvement to become totally engrossed in this outstanding mystery.

You can read more about Julia Dahl at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.



PROVING GROUND by Peter Blauner: Book Review

When Nathaniel “Natty Dread” Dresden returns from the Iraqi War, he’s not the same man he was before he was deployed.  Every loud noise is a mortar shell, every crowd on a Brooklyn street is a group of terrorists, every young boy has the face of the small Iraqi child he killed by mistake.  He’s trying hard to hold it all together, but it’s not working.

It doesn’t help that as Proving Ground opens, Natty’s father is murdered and found dead on the ground of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.  David Dresden was, according to one’s political leanings, either a champion of the poor and disadvantaged or, in the words of the police captain at the scene, …”the lawyer every cop in the city hates.”

New York City police detective Lourdes Robles is partnered with Kevin Sullivan, the man she privately calls The Last of the Mohicans.  Kevin is only a few months away from retirement but he’s a cop who doesn’t quit, and Lourdes is attempting to pick up some of his tricks to try on her own.  Sensing that there’s going to be a lot of coverage of the murder, Kevin tries to give Lourdes the opportunity to keep her distance from it.

But Lourdes is determined to pursue every option to solve Dresden’s killing and prove herself to her colleagues.  She’s a woman who grew up in the projects, whose father is serving a life sentence in an upstate New York prison, whose mother locks herself in the bathroom so she can smoke even though she’s using an oxygen tank.  “You want me off, do whatever you have to do,” she says.  “But I’m not going willingly.”

At the time of David Dresden’s death he was trying to get reparations for an Egyptian man, suspected of being a terrorist, who was deported by the FBI and tortured.  David’s law partner, known to all as Benny G., invites Natty to help with the lawsuit against the federal agency, saying that’s what his father would have wanted.  But Natty wonders whether he will be able to help, given his emotional state, and wonders what is truly motivating Benny.

Is it because Benny thinks Natty can add to the defense, having been a prosecutor in Florida before he joined the Army?  Does Benny simply want to keep an eye on his former partner’s son because he’s worried about another violent episode that Natty might have?  Or is there a more sinister motive that Natty can’t quite figure out?

Peter Blauner is the author of Slow Motion Riot, which won the 1992 Edgar® for best first mystery.  Proving Ground, the author’s first mystery novel since Riot, is well worth the wait.  It’s a thrilling story that will have you emotionally involved from the first chapter, with nearly every character strongly imprinting his/her presence:  the tormented Natty Dresden, realizing that it’s too late to work through his complicated relationship with his father; the determined Lourdes Robles, wanting to overcome her disadvantaged background and follow in the footsteps of her aunt and mentor, another member of the New York City Police Department; Benny G., an attorney who brags that he’s never lost a case; Alice Ali-Dresden, David’s widow and Natty’s mother, feeling bereft after a long marriage that ended so violently, acknowledging that her writing career is over.

All these characters and several more will keep you turning the pages of Proving Ground faster and faster.  Peter Blauner has written a marvelous mystery that contains deep insights into what makes people do what they do.

You can read more about Peter Blauner at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.


ONION STREET by Reed Farrel Coleman: Book Review


Life in mid-sixties Brooklyn was tough, especially for the lower middle class.  Like Haight-Ashbury, Brooklyn had hippies and drugs.  But it also had bombings and murders.

In 1966, Moe Prager was a student at Brooklyn College, an urban commuter school that was one of New York City’s prestigious tuition-free colleges.  You had to be smart to gain entrance into Brooklyn College, and Moe is smart.  But he’s unhappy too, unhappy with his uninteresting social life, unhappy to be still living with his mother and father and two siblings while he knows that other, more fortunate twenty-year-olds are living in dorms on green campuses and having a true college experience.

Moe’s closest friend is Bobby Friedman, another Brooklyn College student but one who’s not as serious or rule-bound as Moe.  Bobby is out to make money, lots of money, as quickly as possible.  Bobby had been dating the beautiful Samantha Hope, another college student, when she and a friend were blown to pieces in an explosion.  The police believe that the two were killed when a bomb they were planning to throw exploded too soon.  But none of their friends in the college leftist movement believes that their two friends would have been planning to injure innocent people.

Then Moe’s girlfriend tells him to keep away from Bobby, that Bobby’s in danger.  Moe doesn’t believe her, but the following night a car tries to run Bobby down.  Moe pushes him out of the way, and Bobby makes light of the situation in his usual style.  Was it an accident caused by the icy streets, or, impossible as it seems, did someone deliberately try to run the man down?

Moe Prager is a wonderful protagonist.   Onion Street is the eighth book in this series.   There’s always a lot of backstory by the time there are seven previous books in a series, but because this novel is told in flashback, except for the first and last chapters, it will tell you all you need to know about Moe and his relationships.  He’s actually telling this story to his daughter Sarah after they’ve been to Bobby’s funeral, where the rabbi has given the departed a fulsome sendoff.  Obviously, the rabbi didn’t know Bobby as well as Moe did.

Sarah has asked Moe numerous times why he became a cop in the first place, and he’s always avoided telling her the reason.  After the funeral he finally does, starting with the events of 1967.  When he’s finished telling Sarah his story, she says, “I guess those were very different times.”  Moe’s response is succinct:  “Sometimes, when I think back to those days, I can’t even imagine I lived through them.”

I gave a rave review to Innocent Monster, the sixth Moe Prager novel, on this blog in July 2010.  I missed reviewing Hurt Machine, but I’m back in the Moe Prager fold once again.

You can read more about Reel Farrel Coleman at his web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at her web site.



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

THE LAST GIG by Norman Green: Book review

If you’re looking for a mystery featuring a trash-talking Puerto Rican babe from the streets of the tough Brooklyn Brownsville neighborhood, The Last Gig is for you.

Alessandra Martillo grew up on her own after the death of her mother and the desertion of her father.  Before he left, however, her father taught her that she had to protect herself and showed her how to do it, and that’s a lesson she learned well.  At twelve she ran away from an uncaring, unloving aunt and slept in a neighborhood pool hall when she was lucky and on the streets of Brownsville when she wasn’t. The shrink’s report on her noted that she had a “personality disorder, attachment disorder, and borderline sociopathic tendencies.”   He didn’t mention she’s afraid of almost nothing and once started can’t be stopped.

Alex is working for a former cop, ostensibly as an office assistant but in reality doing the tough, often dirty jobs he can no longer handle.

This debut novel begins with a gangster who comes to the agency to find out who’s skimming from his various businesses.  Is there a connection between that and the recent death of his musician son, a death that has been ruled a drug-related suicide although nothing much seems to confirm that.

As Alex gets deeper into the case, she’s threatened, beaten, almost raped, attracted to one of the musicians in the band the gangster’s son played in, deals with the upcoming death of her beloved “tio Roberto,” and reconnects with the father who has reentered her life.   All of this while trying to figure out who the traitor is in the  mob boss’ operation and retrieving a tape showing steamy sex between the mobster’s dead son and a top female rocker nicknamed “God.”  This girl is busy!

The Last Gig has a handful of interesting characters:  Marty Stiles, Alex’s boss, a man who’ll do pretty much anything for a dollar and who’s past his prime but won’t admit it; Anthony, her tio Roberto’s lover; and her Aunt Magdalena who barely fed and clothed her after Alex’s mother’s death.  If there are to be future novels in this series, I hope they’ll still be around.

This novel has a lot going for it–an interesting heroine, lots of action, and family dynamics that should continue to play out in any future books.  Here’s hoping we haven’t seen the last of Alex Martillo-she’s a chica to watch.

Norman Green needs to have his own web site.  If you’re reading this, Mr. Green, why not contact–the best in the web design business.