JANUARY 23, 2012
REE FARRELL COLEMAN’s Moe Prager saga, about a Brooklyn ex-cop turned reluctant wine merchant and occasional PI, is that rare series that improves with each new entry. Coleman is now up to the seventh book, Hurt Machine, and it’s not only the best one yet but also the darkest. If you haven’t been following the series since its opener, 2001’s Walking the Perfect Square, there’s a lot of history to catch up on, more than can be covered in a single review. There’s an uncommon and rarely matched richness to Prager’s world – his family, friends, and foes – and the way it develops from book to book. Prager’s family has an unspoken lineage of pain and remorse, and his problems aren’t solved with the words “The End.” Even though each novel works as a standalone, it pays to start at the beginning, not only to get a firmer grasp on the interpersonal relationships, but also to witness Prager’s evolution into one of the most tragically human of all literary PIs.
As Hurt Machine begins, Moe has just learned that he has cancer, and that his daughter is about to be married. Now his second ex-wife (and ex-partner), Carmella Melendez, contacts Moe after years of silence. Carmella’s sister – an EMT branded persona non grata after she refused to help a dying man in a restaurant – has been murdered outside a pizzeria in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn, and Carmella is convinced that it has something to do with a recent scandal. As in previous books, the public mystery that Moe investigates is nothing compared to the private traumas that he uncovers along the way.
Coleman’s novels, like Ed Gorman’s, impress not with distractingly complex plots (though they’re both certainly capable of spinning real page-turners) but with their profound clarity and expert simplicity. Coleman’s characters don’t need grand schemes or million dollar payoffs as motivations: as Moe too frequently discovers, there’s enough potential for lifetimes of pain in our everyday lives. “Humans are like hurt machines,” he muses on the novel’s first page. “No matter how hard we try not to do it, we seem to inflict hurt on one another as naturally as we breathe.” These words reverberate throughout the whole novel, as Moe dredges up old ghosts and opens new wounds.
Unlike the classical Private Eye, who doggedly pursues the truth in a moralistic quest to right the world’s wrongs, Moe has no illusions. Since his very first case in Walking the Perfect Square, he has never been one to tell the whole truth. “It was my experience that where tragedy was involved, the truth made things worse. Always.” He’s harbored as many secrets as his clients (if not more), and his have caused irreparable damage to a great many people – some of whom deserved it, some of whom didn’t. Moe is better aware of his own mortality than ever before, and it remains to be seen just how many more secrets he’ll be able to keep.