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Match Play is a golf/suspense novel. Dust of Autumn is a bloody one set in upstate New York. Prairie View is set in South Dakota, with a final scene atop Rattlesnake Butte. Life in the Arbor is a children's book about Rollie Rabbit and his friends (on about a fourth grade level). The Black Widow involves an elaborate extortion scheme. Doggy-Dog World is my memoir. And ES3 is a description of my method for examining English sentence structure.
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Wednesday, November 25

Reed Coleman & Moe Prager

I’ve long been a fan of tough-guy novel series—MacDonald’s Travis McGee, Connelly’s Harry Bosch, Sandford’s Lucas Davenport, Block’s Matt Scudder, and Parker’s Spenser. But now I have to add another, Reed Farrel Coleman’s Moe Prager. What an unusual character. In many ways he’s the brother of Harry Bosch and Matt Scudder, all rather dark and plodding in their methods of solving crimes, hanging onto the focus of their investigations like bulldogs, all rather fond of booze (although scudder spends much of his time at AA meetings). Where Travis McGee loved Boodles gin, Moe loves Dewars Scotch, and he drinks gallons of it along the way. Also, like Scudder and Bosch, he ages in real time throughout the series, unlike Travis McGee and Spenser, who never seemed to get much older from first in the series to last, despite the nearly thirty years that passed. The world got older but not McGee and Spenser.

Moses Prager is a lapsed Jew, an ex-cop after ten years when he slipped on a waxed squad room floor and injured his knee enough to force him into retirement. He loves Brooklyn and Coney Island. He goes into the wine business with his brother Aaron but hates it. So he gets a New York private investigator’s license and takes occasional cases for old friends and cronies from the 60th Precinct. One unusual aspect of this series of nine, they simply must be read in the order in which they were written. Each episode is built on so many back stories that a reader wandering into the middle wouldn’t have a clue about what was going on. Along the way, he meets Kate Maloney, sister of a missing brother, daughter of an ex-cop and political wheeler dealer that Moe hates with a passion. He marries Kate and they have daughter Sarah but lose another child in miscarriage, devastating enough for Kate that their marriage goes south. Kate is later killed by a man seeking vengeance on Prager. He meets a beautiful cop who turns out to be the girl Moe had saved in the early 70’s when she was thrown into an abandoned water tank and left to die. When she gets pregnant by a lawyer acquaintance, she and Moe marry and become partners in a private investigation firm, but the marriage also goes south as she goes north to Canada with Izzie, the son. Moe grows older and more infirm, but he can still hold his own with bad guys and old enemies from the past. He drinks more and more Dewars and wonders if he’s becoming an alcoholic, he muses about life and death and God. He then takes a final case when an old acquaintance, Nancy Lustig, hires him to find her missing daughter. Stomach cancer nearly takes him, but Pam, a Vermont PI, nurses him back and the two are together until she is accidentally struck and killed by an automobile.

The series is self-contained, unlike that of Travis McGee and Spenser, both of whom kept going until the death of both MacDonald and Parker. I can think of only one other series that actually ended itself, Ed McBain’s Matthew Hope series, the last book named The Last Best Hope. I was so saddened by this seeming conclusion that I wrote to Evan Hunter to ask him if it was really true. He said, yes, old Matthew was going to retire from his law firm and sit on his front porch watching the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico. That’s sort of what Moe Prager does, moves from his beloved Brooklyn to Vermont, where he can be nearer to his daughter and her husband and his grandson Reuben.

The most striking aspect of the Moses Prager series is how well we get to know the man. Coleman uses the first person point of view and never deviates from it. All the words are Prager’s, then, and we hear his clever and insightful thoughts about nearly every possible topic.

Here are a few about death and dying: “I think knowing death is coming for you is a mixed bag, a blessing and a curse. For the family of the dying, it’s a blessing, I’d say. Things can be put in order, grudges forgiven, balance restored. And when death finally comes, it comes as a relief. The mourning is shorter lived, because the loved ones have been grieving all along. For the dying, though, it can be brutal. And I’m not talking about the physical pain here. I had a waitress friend tell me once that she could barely remember the customers who’d given her her biggest tips, but she could describe with crystal clarity the people who’d stiffed her. Impending death can be like that, it can amplify your sins so that everything else is background noise.” (p. 132, Walking the Perfect Square) “Got me thinking about how disconnected we were from death. It was easy to blame drugs, movies, TV, and video games for violence and the devaluation of human life. Bullshit! The real culprit was our lack of intimacy with death. When you’re unfamiliar with death, you’re disrespectful of life. No one dies in his or her bed anymore. People die in hospitals now, or in hospices or nursing homes or alone in cars along the side of the Belt Parkway. Kids don’t go to funerals. Strangers clean our bodies, dress and groom us. Machines dig our graves. Why should any of us respect death when we make it as remote as the mountains of the moon? ¶ I have often wondered if it would be a little harder for a killer to pull the trigger or shove the blade in a second time if he had washed his dead brother’s body or dug his mother’s grave. What if he had watched his dad die an inch at a time from cancer and sat by the deathbed day after day after day? What if there was no church, no funeral home, no hospital, no way to pass the responsibilities of death off to strangers. How much harder would murder be?” (pp. 160-61, Soul Patch) “Death, I thought, had all sorts of potential for unpleasantness, especially if I was wrong about all those many things I didn’t believe in. What if the face of God was a sneering one and he was the type to say I told you so? What if he was just a universal hurt machine? Man, in either case, I was fucked.” (p. 103, Hurt Machine) “Sometimes I thought I would live as long as I was still curious. I bet a lot of cats had that same thought as they breathed their dying breaths.” (p. 145, Hurt Machine) “You never know anything or anyone as well as you think you do, least of all yourself. It is the great folly of humanity, the search for self-knowledge and significance. It’s why we’re all so fucking miserable. Oh, I thought, to be an ant or a cat or almost anything else that doesn’t lose sleep over dying. Does an ant ever ask itself where do I come from, where am I going, or what does it mean?” (p. 203, Hurt Machine) “For some reason I slept better in the late afternoon these days than at night. At my age, you’re confident you’ll wake up from a nap, but the same couldn’t be said of a night’s sleep.” (p. 183, Hurt Machine) “Why do we so value the magic show, the putting on of brave faces? Inside, I was just like those leaves on the trees along the expressway. All I wanted to do was give in when I knew death was coming. I became impatient for it. I wanted to tap my watch crystal with my finger and say, ‘Come on already. I’m here. You’re late.’ ” (p. 100, The Hollow Girl)

A few thoughts about love: “First kisses are a revelation, so uncomplicated and so unlike firsts in bed. Somehow, the awkwardness of first kisses adds to their beauty: Which way should I tilt my head? Will she mind if I cup her chin in my hand or should I hold her in my arms or should I touch her at all? Will she close her eyes? Should I look to see? Will she part her lips? If she does, should I follow her lead? And when, in the end, in spite of your considerable calculation, you bump noses, it’s funny and the tension burns off like fog.” (p. 135, Walking the Perfect Square) “It’s amazing, isn’t it, how two people can spend hours moving in, out, over, around and through parts of each other’s body but refuse to share a toothbrush in a pinch?” (p. 147, Walking the Perfect Square) “I knew that love faded. Anyone married for more than a few years knows that lesson. Sometimes it evaporates completely and so abruptly you question whether it was ever there to begin with, but love and romance are different animals.” (p. 120, The Hurt Machine) “Pam and I had grown into love as opposed to falling into it. Falling is so much more exciting than growing. Falling is all about the manic blur of obsession, the ache of separation, the joy in the exclusion of everything else but love as so much noise. Even am my age, the thought of falling could still make me dizzy. But gravity dictates that falling is always followed by a crash. Gravity is funny that way. Sometimes, like with my first wife, Katy, the crash could be twenty years in coming, inexorable and inevitable.” (p. 157, The Hollow Girl) “I’d been on an island by myself for too long and since that exile was self-imposed, I had only to look in the mirror to ascribe blame. I don’t suppose I ever forgave myself for Katy’s murder. It took seven years for Sarah to absolve me and the rest of the universe either didn’t know or didn’t care. If there was any persuasive argument for the existence of God, it wasn’t in the biology of things, but in emotion, in feelings. I couldn’t quite see how guilt and forgiveness had evolved from the primordial stew. I didn’t know, maybe the ‘adult’ relationship I’d been sharing with Pam over the last two years was just part of my self-inflicted exile. I let her in, but not inside. Suddenly, I wanted off the island and I didn’t care why.” (p. 207, Hurt Machine)

On Time: “It had never before occurred to me that the older one gets, the less one’s life is accompanied by music. I remembered my parents’ house and how music was confined to an hour of show tunes on Sunday mornings. Even for me, news radio had begun replacing music as the soundtrack of my life.” (p. 67, Walking the Perfect Square) “It’s a funny thing about getting older. You lose a sense of how much of your past is real and how much of it is self-fabrication and filler your mind spins out in order to let you sleep nights. I’m not certain if the ratio of real to imagined was knowable, that I’d want to know it. How many of us would, I wonder?” (p. 72, Empty Ever After) “However, the past, it seemed, was not set in granite, but rather as fluid as the future. I was as incapable of shaping one as the other. The past, my past, sang a siren’s song to me that was beyond my ability to resist and I was forced to reach deeper and deeper into my pockets to pay the price each time I succumbed. By any measure, it had been a weird fucking day and I was off balance, way off.” (p. 77, Empty Ever After) “The sun wasn’t particularly bright nor the sky severely blue. The clouds that drifted overhead weren’t shaped like angels’ wings nor were they ominous and gray. The wind blew, but only enough to disappoint. It was a plain summer’s day that no one would ever sing about or write a poem about or paint a picture of. In this way, it was like most days of most lives, a nearly blank page in a forgotten diary. I think if we could remember our individual days, life wouldn’t seem so fleeting. But we aren’t built to work that way, are we? We are built to forget.” (p. 157, Empty Ever After) “I saw Carmella Melendez with my eyes instead of my heart. Her hair, once so impossibly black, was now salted with threads of gray. She was still fit and as perfectly curved as she had been in her mid-twenties, but some of the fierceness in her eyes had vanished and the sun-darkened skin of her face showed age beyond her years. There are all kinds of aging. Time ages us more gracefully than heartache. The lines in her face, around her eyes and mouth, were etched in tears, many tears.” (p. 6, The Hurt Machine) “I stopped, about-faced, and used my hand to block the light from the sun that hung fierce and low in the western sky. It had already begun telling its late September lies. My hand could shield me from its light, I thought, but not from its lies. Soon, early darkness would follow. Too bad life wasn’t like that, darkness following the lies. It was my experience that a lot of life was built on lies, mostly the ones we tell ourselves. I had reached a kind of Zen about the ones I told myself. Most of my life had been a wrestling match with them. Not anymore. Om. . . . Sometimes it became just so much noise that translated into Give money, stop death. It was the biggest lie we shared. That if we only gave a few dollars more, we could all spread lamb’s blood above our thresholds and the angel of death would walk on by.” (pp. 34 & 35, The Hollow Girl) “Her looks—a striking mixture of African and European features—both defined and defied the label African-American. She was pretty enough in the photos I’d seen of her, but she was more attractive in person. This in spite of the obvious toll the last few months had taken on her. In her thirties and taller than I expected, she was athletically slender and wore her tightly curled hair short to her head. Her medium brown skin was taut over mile-high cheekbones. She had a gently sloping nose and angular jawline. Her lips were full without being showy, but the stars of the show were her hazel green eyes. Yet, in spite of her natural beauty, she was practically aging before my eyes.” (p. 37, The Hurt Machine)

On being a Jew: “Jews know guilt. We can smell it on your breath. We can read it in the lines of your face because we’ve looked at it in mirrors for thousands of years. Guilt is like a witch’s spell. Once cast it cannot be reasoned away.” (p. 149, Walking the Perfect Square) “Something smelled delicious but completely out of place in the Swan Song’s allegedly kosher kitchen: frying bacon. God’s quintessential torment. With bacon you were fucked either way. Even if you were an observant Jew and disdained pork products, there was no prohibition against breathing. And one sniff, one breath that contained that sweetly smoky aroma, could torture the most devout rabbi. If, on the other hand, you were, like myself, a bad Jew, or someone unconstrained by five-thousand-year-old dietary laws, you were still screwed. Bacon was cholesterol’s perfect delivery system. Bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches had killed more cops than all the cheap handguns ever made.” (p. 46, Redemption Street)

On Brooklyn: “The Brooklyn I love likes itself a half-step behind and a few years out of date. It likes its yearning. The yearning where making it means somewhere across the river, not across Bushwick Avenue. My Brooklyn doesn’t consider its decay ironic or a statement about something bigger. My Brooklyn is what it is, and says that’s enough because it has to be. That’s all there is. Brooklyn is necessarily a place that used to be, not a place that’s happening.” (p. 69, The Hollow Girl)

On a wide variety of topics, all elegantly said: “Touch of Evil was a ‘50s black-and-white flick about a corrupt cop and a Mexican drug prosecutor set in a small Texas border town. Orson Welles directed it and played the drunken, candy bar-eating cop. You had to love Orson Welles. Either there was no budget for makeup or he simply willed himself to be more obese and sloppy than an unshaven whale. I take that back, there was a budget for makeup, but they spent it all trying to make Charleton Heston look Mexican.” (pp. 210-11, Walking the Perfect Square) “Cars drifted slowly into the fenced parking lot outside the Sanitation and Highway Department garage. Stories high piles of asphalt crumbles, road salt and sand peeked over the ledge of the garage’s flat roof like distant mountaintops. The air smelled of hot tar, though I could see from where I sat that none of the paving trucks had fired up their rolling furnaces. It was similar to how airports stink of spent kerosene even late at night, when runways go unused for hours at a time. I suppose it’s a scientific impossibility, but sometimes it just seems that, like a rug or silk tie, the atmosphere can be permanently stained. (p. 216, Walking the Perfect Square) “I tried golf a little bit, but I figured if I wanted to suffer so much, I’d just stick pins in my eyes.” (p. 189, Soul Patch) “There he was, his thick, short body laid out like a cadaver. Maybe that was just wishful thinking on my part. He didn’t realize it was me, and his eyes lit up when I came into the room. The light went out soon enough. It wasn’t pronounced, but the right side of his face drooped like a wax mask that had gotten a little too close to a hot lamp.” (p. 105, Redemption Street) “Sheriff Vandervoort was a gruff, cinder block of a man who, in the space of a very few minutes, had twice boasted that his ancestors had lived in these parts since New York was New Amsterdam. He wore his insecurities like a rainbow.” (p. 17, Empty Ever After) “. . . the tragedy pimps. There were just some people addicted to the scent and spectacle of tragedy. Drawn like swarming flies to a fresh corpse, it was easy to spot their faces in the crowd. They were the lean and hungry onlookers, the ones waiting to feed off the bad news. They were the ones with the vacant lives whose condolences were more for their own empty selves than the families of the lost. They were the eager wreath-layers.” (p. 182, Innocent Monster) “He had a head of neatly kept black hair, dark brown eyes, and a strong chin. He had a confused nose that couldn’t decide which way to go, but it added a nice bit of character to him.” (p. 150, Hurt Machine) (About the importance of cell phones in our lives today) “I recalled that once being free was freer than it was now. There were times when you were unreachable, unaccounted for, unconnected to a cyber life. A time when your actual, living breathing life was more important, when the details of what you were saying and doing and thinking and feeling at any particular moment was all that there was of you. No more.” (p. 145, The Hollow Girl) “It had been my experience that truth wasn’t the great emancipator, not the great tonic and elixir everyone touted it to be. I’d often found the opposite was the reality, that truth could be toxic, that it sometimes made everything worse. I’d also found that the effects of truth, good or bad, had as much to do with when you told it as the truth itself.” (pp. 222-224, The Hollow Girl) “The problem with bills coming due is that the wrong party often paid the price. I guess that’s why I had never been able to buy into God. I didn’t believe much in karma anymore either. Whatever goes around comes around. Nope. The longer I lived, the colder and more random the universe seemed to get.” (p. 279, The Hollow Girl)

And finally, some insight from someone other than Moe Prager: (Detective Fuqua on why the world hates America) “ Our obsession with ourselves; the inflation of our small lives into objects of public fascination. It is not our bombs or our constant flag waving in their faces that they so much detest, I think, as our petty obsessions. The world wants our country to care about important things, but instead we care about Dancing with the Stars. We know the bra size of Lady Gaga and we have TV shows that sexualize little girls as beauty queens, but how many of us can name even a single country in West Africa, or know who is the president of Russia? Our lack of perspective is what makes us hated.” (p. 151, The Hollow Girl)

I have only one complaint about the Prager series. The eighth book, Onion Street, is jarringly out of sync with the others. After attending Bobby Friedman’s funeral, a friend of Moe’s from the time they were both attending classes at Brooklyn College, Moe’s daughter asks him to tell her how he became a cop. Onion Street is about that time in 1967 when Moe doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, but he knows it isn’t in the wine business with his brother Aaron nor obtaining an empty degree from Brooklyn College. He gets involved with other students actively protesting the war in Viet Nam, a radical group called the Committee. My problem with this novel is that it sounds much more like something Coleman probably would have written early in his writing career, something that he may have tried and failed to get published. The style isn’t anything like that in the other eight novels. The writing is much more like that of the pulp novels being put out in the Fifties and Sixties—short, tough, noir-ish, hastily written, like all the Mike Hammers of Mickey Spillane, the Mike Shaynes of Brett Halliday, or the early novels of Parker and MacDonald and others who were cranking them out as fast as they could to scratch out a living. I realize that his use of the first person point of view gives him an out, that the words we hear in Onion Street are Moe Prager’s when he was only recently out of high school, young and foolish and without the depth of the later Prager’s thoughts. But Moe is telling his daughter and his readers when he was in his late sixties, looking back on those early events in his life. Wouldn’t we hear the old Moe instead of the young?

Here’s just one example to show what I mean. Near the end, Moe is waiting in the darkness of a warehouse for the two baddies, Tony Pizza and Jimmie Ding Dong, to show up with his friend Lids, who has been beaten nearly to death by Jimmie. He hears the two men dragging someone into the warehouse.

“The kid’s fuckin’ us around,” Jimmy said, staring into the blackness of the unit. Something crashed to the floor with a sickening thud.

The sound was of Lid’s body being dropped. Would it have crashed with a sickening thud? The older Moe, the older Coleman, wouldn’t have used such a silly description of the sound of a slight man’s being dropped to the floor from only two or three feet. The Prologue to Onion Street establishes why we’re hearing this 1967 tale about the young Moe Prager, and the Epilogue brings us back to 2012 and the sixty-six-year old Moe. Onion Street might easily have been eliminated from the series without hindering it a bit.

With other writers I admire and other series I enjoyed—my all-time favorite John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder, Robert Parker’s Spenser, John Sandford’s Preys, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Michael Connely’s Harry Bosch, and Ed McBain’s 87 Precinct—I often re-read them as fast as I can to see again what I liked about their series, to see things I’d missed about the stories, the characters, and the writing styles. I’m positive I’ll do the same now for Reed Farrel Coleman’s Moe Prager.

Anyone searching for the nine novels in the series, here's a list of them. You'll probably discover they're a little hard to find, but they all seem to be available at Amazon, but not at any of the used bookstores or commercial stores like Barnes & Noble or Border's. But find them. You won't be sorry. 1. Walking the Perfect Square 2. Redemption Street 3. The James Deans 4. Soul Patch 5. Empty Ever After 6. Innocent Monster 7. Hurt Machine 8. Onion Street 9. The Hollow Girl
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