Friday, December 30, 2011

Hurt Machine

by Reed Farrel Coleman
Cincinnati, Tyrus Books, 2011
309 pages     Fiction

Moe Prager is a wounded hero. We are told in the first paragraph of Hurt Machine by Reed Farrel Coleman that Moe has a tumor in his stomach and he is hurting, both physically and psychically. He muses: “Humans are like hurt machines. No matter how hard we try not to do it, we seem to inflict hurt on one another as naturally as we breathe.”

Moe has been a private investigator for many years, and the first case he takes on after his devastating diagnosis is an attempt to make amends with an ex-wife--to appease the hurt that Moe feels he has caused her. Her sister has been murdered under very suspicious circumstances, and as he works to solve the murder, he opens up a world of hurt that extends way beyond the case at hand. Moe feels that solving this case is his last chance for redemption. “As atheists go, I was a dreadful disappointment.”

There are so many remarkable elements at work in Hurt Machine, not the least of which is the aging protagonist, Moe Prager. He is a philosopher in the guise of a private investigator. Like most mysteries, much of the action happens in the last few chapters, but Moe is so full of quotable thoughts that the reader doesn’t try to solve the crime too early for fear of missing some meandering consideration or pithy aside. Here are some of my favorites:
 ·         “Time to think is life’s Petri dish. It’s the medium in which a random twinge of anxiety morphs into debilitating self-doubt, where a passing regret grows into paralytic guilt. 
·         “Only in the hearts and minds of those closest to them do victims remain themselves.”
·         “These days my exhaustion was profound as a Russian novel.” 
·         “What if the face of God was a sneering one and he was the type to say I told you so? What if he was just a universal hurt machine?” 
·         “If there was any persuasive argument for the existence of God, it wasn’t in the biology of things, but in emotion, in feelings. I couldn’t quite see how guilt and forgiveness had evolved from the primordial stew.”

This is a man you just gotta like. The New York Times reviewer calls him “a stubborn old shamus.”

Another element that makes for a credible novel is a detailed setting. In this case, the setting is New York City, primarily Brooklyn, and most specifically Coney Island. Author Coleman really knows this city, including all the places that policemen, firemen, and mobsters hang out. Moe’s ex-wife suggests to him that he might as well be buried at Coney Island. “When you die, they should just bury you right here, under the boardwalk.” This is not the NYC of the tourist; it is the New York of a person who has eaten at the Gelato Grotto many times—for its not-so-good pizza as well as for its excellent gelato.

The third element that pleased me about Hurt Machine is the cliffhanger plot. It is impossible to figure out exactly what happened to Moe’s sister-in-law until the very last chapter; in my mind the very most important aspect of a great mystery novel. I truly thought that the book was going to end without a denouement, but then it appeared. Aah—closure. I am not sure, however, that it means closure for Moe Prager, who still is going to have to deal with his cancer after the crime is solved.

I even learned a new word when reading Hurt Machine. mishega—Yiddish for craziness.

Hurt Machine is such a good novel that I am convinced that I must go back and read the six prior novels about Moe Prager by Reed Farrel Coleman; perhaps back to the days before Moe was sick and waxing poetic—or perhaps he has always been philosophical and hurting. He’s just that kind of a guy. I particularly liked what the Kirkus reviewer had to say about him: “Though once or twice he crosses that tricky line between Weltschmerz and cry-baby, Moe Prager remains basically irresistible.”

I received Hurt Machine from the publicist; the book is now available and I can highly recommend it.
Reed Coleman’s website: On this website, there are videos of the Brooklyn that Coleman ( and Moe Prager) knows well.

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