Sunday, 5 January 2014

Manhattan '62 by Reggie Nadelson reviewed by Julia Jones

Reggie Nadelson is a woman of many talents. She's a travel writer,  a documentary film-maker, a journalist, a foodie and is impressively knowledgeable about the cultural politics of jazz and early rock music. She is also the author of the Artie Cohen series of crime novels. There have been nine titles to date, each book evoking the ethnographies, the atmospheres, the mores of specific areas of New York city -- small unique enclaves within Brooklyn, Harlem, Manhattan, each of them as distinctive and individual as villages. Her 2011 Artie Cohen novel, Bloodcount, centred on a single building, the Louis Armstrong Apartments in Harlem during the emotional aftermath of Barack Obama's December 2008 election. It was memorable for its sense of place, of personal histories and its evocation of an unrepeatable moment in time.

Nadelson's new novel, Manhattan '62, takes the action back to the thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. On October 16th 1962, when President Kennedy was first shown the evidence of Russian missile sites, New York detective Pat Wynne is taken to view a body on one of the piers by the Hudson River. Wynne knows that this is an area that the Mafia use for executions. A Mob killing, maybe that's all it is -- or perhaps the victim was one of those 'homos' that the Mayor of New York is trying to eradicate before the World Trade Fair comes to the city. This is 1962 when gay sex was illegal in both the UK and USA. Senator McCarthy was dead by 1962 but his legacy of smear and suspicion lived on, poisoning both private and public lives. To be suspected of homosexuality was at least as damaging as to be accused of communist sympathies
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There's paranoia in the city. Tommy, the twelve-year-old who has found the body, is convinced that there are spies coming in via the Hudson River: "Reds. Fucking Commies. Russkis. Cubans. Gonna kill us all." Detective Wynne would be glad to believe that the body on the pier was a 'normal' Mafia payback but he can't. The dead man has a tattoo that Wynne has seen before -- a worm entwined around the slogan 'Cuba Libre'.   He's seen it on another mutilated corpse, a young girl found hanging from the High Line. Wynne was investigating her case but got little support from his fellow-officers and has made no progress in discovering either the victim's identity or her killer.

This time it's worse as he's convinced that he knows the most likely suspect for the murder -- his new Russian friend, Maxim Ostalsky. Wynne first met Ostalsky in Greenwich Village, just a few months earlier when he watched the Russian trying, ineptly, to buy a hot dog. The American is a veteran of the Korean War, he's damaged and suspicious yet, from that moment, Ostalsky has him charmed. They have become friends -- drunk together, smoked and talked and loved the same woman. It is this portrayal of an unlikely friendship that raises Manhattan '62 above the level of a normally good historical detective story. The bewildering political complexity of the thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis is mediated through Wynne's confusion as he is warned off the murder case and finds his closest colleagues and even his family unwilling to take his calls. He becomes a pariah, struggling with his suspicions of Ostalsky, with his sexual jealousy but still vulnerable to the Russian's apparent openness and charm. Inevitably there is betrayal on both sides -- and all this in a city on the verge of nuclear holocaust.

Nadelson's writing is a delight - tangy, idiomatic, instantly involving - and for readers of her excellent 2009 Artie Cohen novel Londongrad there is a final, satisfying connection, which I should have guessed but didn't.