Friday, June 17, 2016


Reed Farrel Coleman first came to notice with his Moe Prager series, describing a police officer forced to retire after an injury who takes on an odd case now and again while running a wine shop with his brother. Lately, he's been tapped to continue the stories of the late Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone after Michael Brandman's three swing-and-misses with that character.

Where It Hurts is the first outing for what is currently projected to be a series, following former cop Gus Murphy's investigations of different dirty deeds. Gus retired from the force following the tragic death of his 20-year-old son from an unknown heart condition and his life unraveled. He maintains a toxic non-distance from his ex-wife and doesn't know how to handle the downward spiral that seems to have claimed his daughter. He currently drives a courtesy van between a small airport and a second-rate motel and tries to figure out why he should wake up in the morning.

But when a small-time thug asks him to check into his son's murder, Gus finds himself strangely drawn to the case for reasons he can explain neither to his therapist nor his quasi-confessor, a retired department chaplain and former priest. Once people -- law-enforcement and otherwise -- start leaning on him to get him to back away and once the ex-con who started the ball rolling is shot, then Gus finds himself with a reason to get up as well as a reason to get to the bottom of things.

Hurts features Coleman's elegant plain-spoken style as one of its many strengths -- he manages to be erudite and reflective while leaving the polysyllables back in the box. His characterizations are hit and miss -- Gus, many of the people he interviews and his former priest friend Bill are all clearly drawn, but some others that seem to be set up to be more important not so much. It also highlights how well Coleman manages to work with protagonists who are clearly flawed and in many cases quite broken.

And that last could prove to hamper the possibilities of a series with Gus and company. We get that Gus is bleak -- and can understand why, given his circumstances -- but Coleman feels the need to keep that furrow well and fully plowed. Only very rarely does he return to the field with seed for it, mostly just running the plow of Gus's grief, disillusionment and whatnot through the ground again. A furrow planted can grow a crop; one just dug out will be a ditch. Coleman may intend to lever Gus a few notches closer to re-investing in his life in coming novels. I'd hope so, because another couple hundred pages of this and I'll quit my job to drive a courtesy van.

I've neither had children nor lost them, so I can't say how I'd react. Coleman's picture of Gus may be right on the money, but it makes a for a bleak enough read that the end of the book is more welcome than it should be. Human hearts are biased towards hope, whether we want them to be or not. That's why people will still be reading Lord of the Rings in 50 years, while the only reason they'll pick up A Song of Ice and Fire then is that George Martin will have just finished it. If Gus Murphy does turn into a series character but never seems to move on towards some kind of new life, then Coleman will probably need to be casting around for another series sooner than he might have imagined.

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