Thursday, 5 March 2009

Crime and the City

After a bit of a break, back into the crime genre with Richard Price's 2008 novel Lush Life.

Set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Lush Life begins with a night out on the town that finishes with a shooting. Ike Marcus, a bartender with more ambitious career plans, is shot dead leaving Eric Cash, a cafe manager and fellow reveller, the most immediate witness. Cash's story is that they were accosted by two black teenagers, one of whom shot Ike when he refused to be cowed by them. However, some other witnesses claim not to have seen the purported assailants, and the police officers running the case, Matty Clark and his partner Yolanda, quickly turn Cash from key witness into chief suspect. But, after breaking Cash down in questioning, the officers realise, too late, that his story holds water, and that the real perpetrators are fading away as the crime scene goes cold. As well as chasing these ghosts, they have to deal with a now-uncooperative Cash, and Marcus' dysfunctional family as it comes to terms with his death.

Characterisation and texture is where this novel succeeds best. Unlike most other crime novels, the plot is really relatively slender. Its denouement is less the result of patient police work than a chance encounter with one of the perpetrators, a prediction that is actually made by Clark to Marcus' family early into the investigation. Instead of police procedural, the novel tracks the consequences of the murder and delves into the backgrounds of the characters that frame it. It also vividly recreates the mean streets of Manhattan, bringing it to life through a series of events and incidental characters.

If I were to fault the novel at all, it'd just be that it's perhaps a bit too long for the slender tale at its core. The aforementioned character and texture carry the novel a long way, but I was beginning to lose patience with it by about three quarters the way through. And since the plot is so slender, I began thinking that I'd perhaps missed some key passage earlier on that would make sense of it all instead of focusing on the scenery.

I should perhaps have spotted the clue in the title: lush life indeed.

In passing, it was quite a strange experience reading this novel at the same time as working my way through GTA IV (of which, more once I'm done). Though the latter tends to the pulp end of the crime genre (which, to be fair, is still an achievement for its artform), it does such a good job of recreating New York, I almost expected to come across the street shrine that's erected for Marcus at some point.

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