Central Park West: A Crime Novel
“Central Park West is a fine debut in the challenging arena of legal thrillers, and James Comey’s next venture in the genre will be most welcome.”
Mega-publishers love celebrity authors, for the obvious reason that name recognition alone will essentially guarantee an automatic rocket launch to the top of the bestseller lists without much additional effort required.
Readers have recently been treated to a number of such titles in the mystery/thriller realm, including novels from Bill Clinton (with James Patterson), Hillary Clinton (with Louise Penny), Dolly Parton (with James Patterson), and Stacey Abrams, just to name a few.
The results, to say the least, have been mixed.
Now it’s James Comey’s turn to try his hand at bestselling fiction with Central Park West: A Crime Novel.
Nora Carleton, assistant United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, is leading the prosecution of mobster Dominic “The Nose” D’Amico when she’s suddenly pulled into a much larger case.
In exchange for leniency, The Nose offers to provide evidence connected to the recent murder of disgraced Governor Tony Burke, information that would suggest someone other than Burke’s widow, Kyra, was responsible for his death.
When The Nose suddenly turns up dead, Kyra Burke’s conviction seems a slam-dunk. But as the trial proceeds, Nora finds herself looking elsewhere as corruption and conspiracy ratchet up the tension to the breaking point.
As an amateur dipping his toe into the crime fiction business, Comey has in fact done an admirable job of providing us with a readable, fast-paced novel with good characters and an interesting plot.
It goes without saying that it’s much better approached as a legal thriller than a pure crime novel, despite the subtitle, as it features not one but two trials. Legal thrillers always include an investigative subplot to keep the mystery bubbling, of course, and Comey’s done a good job with his.
Thankfully, the story draws on his experiences as a federal mob prosecutor and not on his more recent stint as director of the FBI tasked with handling the turbulence of a presidential election and the subsequent term of a problematic president.
In fact, his only oblique reference to those controversial experiences comes near the end of the novel, when a character refers to “our nutjob former president.” Any more than this is certainly not necessary, thank you.
Which brings us to his characters. Nora is an interesting protagonist with an unusual lifestyle, living alone while Nick, the father of her child, lives with the girl and Nora’s mother. (Nick and Nora? Okay, then.) She’s conflicted about her sexuality, she’s fashion conscious, and she’s a red-hot pistol in the courtroom. The stuff that bestsellers are truly made on.
The show-stealer, however, is Benny Dugan, a bear of a man famous as a “legendary Mafia investigator,” and when a rough edge is needed to force information out into the open where Nora can get at it, Dugan’s her man.
As he emphasizes to her at the end of the story: “Our job is to lock up bad people to protect good people. . . . Sometimes that means we gotta use other bad people to do it. . . . Sometimes that means people we know are motherless fucks are gonna get away. . . . Our job is to live in gray, find the ones who have drifted into black and hammer them, so all the people sleeping soundly in white can stay that way.”
Hello Mickey Spillane, are you there?
The novel suffers from some of the flaws encountered in many first efforts. For example, his dialogue will need extra attention next time out. While it’s understood that Comey’s using informal contractions such as “wanna,” “gonna,” “gotta,” “lotta,” and the always-popular pronoun “youse” in order to replicate local patterns of speech in our mind’s ear, they snow us under after a while.
If he were to save them for moments of emphasis with his characters, rather than the constant distraction they are here, then the dialogue would flow more freely, and we’d still understand exactly which spot on the planet these folks occupy.
But in the greater scheme of things, these signs of inexperience will no doubt be smoothed away as he continues in the genre, as is apparently his intention.
Central Park West is a fine debut in the challenging arena of legal thrillers, and James Comey’s next venture in the genre will be most welcome.