Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Crime Fiction: Innocent Monster by Reed Farrel Coleman

Retired New York cop, sometime private eye and reluctant wine merchant Moe Prager returns in author Reed Farrel Coleman’s latest novel, Innocent Monster (Tyrus Books). It’s now 2006, six years since Moe’s ex-wife, Katy, was murdered (in Empty Ever After, 2008). He is divorced again and doesn’t even know where to find his lapsed P.I. license. That doesn’t stop daughter Sarah, though, from approaching him to help out a childhood friend in need.

Candy Bluntstone is the mother of Sashi Bluntstone, the art world’s latest little darling. Sashi is not even 12 years old yet, but already she produces paintings that are favorably compared to those of Jackson Pollack. Or she did, anyway. Sashi has disappeared, and the police are stumped as to her whereabouts. Moe agrees to help Sarah’s friend Candy find her child, if only to get his own daughter back into his life.

Aiding Prager are NYPD Detective Jordan McKenna, the frustrated cop assigned to this missing-persons case, and Jimmy Palumbo, a former NFL rising star reduced to working museum security. Between the three of them, they discover there is no end to the number of sick people in the art community who think that dying to increase the value of one’s work is perfectly reasonable. More than a couple of collectors, as well as one artist with a bad heroin habit, make no secret of the fact that Sashi’s death would be quite a lucrative turn of events for them.

It could also prove advantageous to Candy Bluntstone and her husband, Max: they’re broke. But even Max, who’s normally looked at as a parasite, is having a hard time accepting what’s happened. He is mourning not only the loss of a daughter, but the artistic career he himself could have enjoyed, had things turned out differently. Meanwhile, this case offers up the bizarre and enigmatic John Tierney. A tortured schizophrenic who has an almost mystical love/hate obsession with Sashi, Tierney lives in a cesspool of a house adorned with peculiar suffering Christ heads, their eyes blacked out. Tierney eventually becomes the prime suspect in the girl’s disappearance. Still, Moe finds himself feeling sorry for Tierney, even if he’s guilty of doing away with Sashi. Sometimes a killer is just too pathetic to hate.

Of course, this being a Moe Prager novel (the sixth, in fact), we know that the answer our investigating hero initially arrives at is not the right one. In the past, that pattern has had tragic consequences, and the same proves true in Innocent Monster. However, as in Empty Ever After, the pages of this new book offer signs of renewal for our wayward ex-policeman. In Empty, Moe found solace in the arms of his Puerto Rican P.I. partner, Carmella Melendez. That short relationship and business partnership has ended, and Moe mourns its loss; but Carmella’s influence can be felt throughout Innocent Monster. He seems to be not only a better detective, but a better person because of the brief time he spent with her. And now ...?

Well, in this story Moe Prager manages to heal a few of his oldest wounds, but fortunately for us, author Coleman leaves plenty still open for his man to work on over the years to come. ◊

Jim Winter is a writer, reviewer and occasional comedian in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he works in tech support. He’s a regular contributor to Crimespree and an occasional contributor to The Rap Sheet.

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