Fiction – paperback; Picador; 358 pages; 2008.
First published in 1996, Manhattan Nocturne is one of those dark, sexy thrillers that pays homage to hardboiled noir. It’s a detective story told through the eyes of a journalist (rather than a cop) and has all the key ingredients for a superb story: a slightly narcissistic protagonist, a mysterious femme fatale and a violent murder to solve, all set within the seedy labyrinth of New York City.
The story begins when the improbably named Porter Wren, a 38-year-old newspaper columnist, attends a party thrown by the owner of his tabloid newspaper, a bullish Australian media magnate (who has a passing resemblance to Kerry Packer but is more likely to be a thinly veiled version of Rupert Murdoch), and is approached by a beautiful blonde woman called Caroline Crowley. Porter is happily married to Lisa, a successful hand surgeon, and has two young children, but that doesn’t stop him flirting with Caroline and then going back to her luxurious apartment for what he hopes will be an exciting sexual encounter.
What he gets, however, is something else entirely: a story that could reinvigorate his jaded career, because Caroline wants him to discover who murdered her husband, Simon Crowley, a promising film director on the brink of international success. His grossly mutilated body had been found several years earlier on a building site on the Lower Eastside but the police had never been able to track down the killer — could Porter do it for her?
Of course her challenge is not without ties, and before long the pair are conducting a rather sordid affair that gives Porter a delicious new edge to his otherwise mundane marital life. He is careful, however, to make it clear that he takes full responsibility for acting on his sexual impulses, because…
…what happened to me derived not from my marriage with Lisa but from the actions of four people — me, Caroline Crowley, Simon Crowley, and one other. We were an odd troupe who found one another across time and space. There were minor players in our little urban drama as well, and I’ll get to each other of those people, too, in time. But my wife did not drive events. She simply went to work each day and took care of the kids while I found trouble. This doesn’t make her powerless or a flawless innocent,either; and this is not to say that she did not know what was going on; my wife is capable of powerful, watching stillness. My wife, I hasten to add, is far smarter, far wiser that I.
I was awake with my secret. It was terrifying yet thrilling. A secret is the hoard inside the maze of lies. A secret paints your face into a mask, and makes you watch those who are fooled by your performance. To have a secret is slyly to learn anew the mannerisms of regular conversation, the shuffling chitchat that brilliantly conceals the screamer. A secret organizes your life. Mundane irritations become desirable; by bearing them silently you pay homage to the secret; eyes open, you feed it in the dark.
The story becomes more than an undercover murder investigation when Porter’s boss calls him into his office for a “friendly chat”. It seems he, too, has been mixed up with Caroline in the past and he believes she is sending him a mystery video over and over again. The content of that video is not disclosed but Porter, charged with finding it so that it can be destroyed, assumes it must show his boss in a compromising position, perhaps with Caroline herself.
Caught between his lover and the man who pays his wages, Porter’s level of discomfort is suddenly ratcheted up a few notches…
This is a multi-layered, occasionally complicated narrative, that feels as gritty and realistic as a dirty back avenue in downtown Manhattan. It’s beautifully written, but Harrison especially comes into his own when describing New York:
Morning in Manhattan. Excellent and fair. Washed yellow taxis speeding downtown. Mexican men trimming tulips outside Korean delis. The early walkers to work, pleased with themselves. Subways flashing like information. Brightness unfurling almost perceptibly down the faces of buildings. In the back of the bars and the clubs and restaurants, a hundred thousand conversations are swept up, hosed down, hauled off.
Unfortunately the plot does get a little too messy and incredulous towards the end, and it’s slightly difficult to keep track of all the clues and how they fall into place. But the superb characterisation makes up for this, although the main players aren’t necessarily likable or admirable in any shape or form.
For the most part Manhattan Nocturne is an exciting, enjoyable romp through the dark, seedy side of New York City life with a lot of sex and a good mystery thrown in to boot — perfect, if you like that sort of thing.