“Reed Farrel Coleman is one of the more original voices to emerge from the crime fiction field in the last ten years. For the uninitiated, WALKING THE PERFECT SQUARE is the place to start.” – George PelecanosWhich is very nice indeed. I read THE JAMES DEANS last year, in Croatia, on a day of lowering skies and fine mist that made it pointless to go sight-seeing, and yet was perfect for sitting out on a veranda on a swing-seat with coffee, cigarettes and strong reading to hand. I read it in the proverbial one sitting, and put it down a little dazed. I meant to write it up for the blog when I got back from Croatia, but on the couple of tries I made, it seemed beyond me.
It’s a Moe Prager novel, a private eye story set in 1983. Prager is an ex-NYPD cop turned private eye, albeit of the reluctant variety. The plot, which begins with the murder of a young political intern, has plenty of twists and turns, and the style is pleasingly aware of, without being deferential to, its sense of history and its place in the lineage of Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald et al.
All of which would have made THE JAMES DEANS eminently readable. What made it compulsive, however, was the voice of Moe Prager. This was Coleman’s third novel, I think, and yet he had slipped inside the skin of his character in a way that is very difficult to achieve and impossible to fake. It’s not that Moe is gratifyingly human, although he is, because there are no superhuman feats of endurance and / or soaking up of punishment. It’s not that he is the vulnerable Everyman, doing his best in shitty circumstances, because he is, and there’s very little by way of artificial Eureka! moments and savant-like puzzle-solving. For me, what made Moe Prager such a compelling character was his realism. It’s a difficult thing to describe, and perhaps I was identifying too much with the character, but Coleman has the ability to synchronise Prager’s heartbeat with your own, so that you pulse and twitch and shudder as he does.
Yes, THE JAMES DEANS is a crime fiction novel, and a superb example of same, and a terrific private eye tale that was nominated for the Edgar and Gumshoe awards. But Moe Prager could just as easily have been an accountant, or an Alaskan park ranger, or a road-sweeper, and his story would have been a fascinating one. At the end of the day, novels are about people and the consequences of how they live their lives. Some writers can make you feel that they have inhabited their characters to a degree associated with demonic possession, but Reed Farrel Coleman’s gift is to graft that sensation onto the reader, so that he or she feels they’re wearing the character like skin.
In the interests of openness, transparency and accountability, I should mention that Reed Farrel Coleman was gracious enough to read and blurb THE BIG O, and in very generous terms too, simply on the basis that we had a mutual friend in Ken Bruen. At the time I thought it was a lovely gesture, and indicative of how hospitable the crime fiction community is; but what made his blurb so powerful to yours truly was that, after reading THE JAMES DEANS, I already knew he was so far ahead of the posse that there was no favour he could require of me in return.
A nice guy, then, and a terrific writer, one of the finest of his generation. If you haven’t read THE JAMES DEANS yet, do yourself a favour and do so. It’s how books are supposed to be.