Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Review: Beware the Solitary Drinker,
by Cornelius Lehane

(Excerpted from the Rap Sheet newsletter, November 2002.)

Considerably more satisfying is Beware the Solitary Drinker (Poisoned Pen Press), an intricate -- sometimes a tad too intricate -- amateur sleuth mystery, set in 1983 among the plenteous bars and embittered tipplers of Manhattan's Upper West Side. Although this is a first novel from Washington, D.C., writer Cornelius Lehane, it shows the confidence of a more mature hand.

Brian McNulty is a 40-year-old failed law student, sometimes-actor and veteran bartender who works the plank at Oscar's, a smoky, seedy joint on Broadway, near Harlem. One night, he meets Angelina Carter, an utterly charming, blue-eyed 20-year-old who takes to bunking with him (more chastely than he would prefer) until she finds a waitressing job, moves into a studio apartment and starts "spending money like a drunken sailor, recklessly enjoying her prosperity and popularity." But after winning the hearts of the Oscar's clientele, and taking several of the eccentric regulars into her bed, Angelina suddenly turns up murdered in Riverside Park. Who would do in such a sweet and sexy young thing, and why? The cops have McNulty pegged as the perpetrator, if only because Angelina made him the beneficiary of her life insurance policy. McNulty worries that she may have been capped, instead, by another friend of his, a black bass player with whom the bartender had spotted Angelina on the night of her final breath. Either way, McNulty wants no part of the ensuing investigation. Reared by a grudge-bearing Communist father to distrust the Establishment, he can't even bring himself to share what little he knows about Angelina's life with the cops. However, McNulty is ultimately pushed into the middle of this tangled case by Janet Carter, the dead woman's elder sister, a Massachusetts bank employee who insists on unearthing the full circumstances of her sibling's slaying, even if it means exposing aspects of Angelina's behavior -- her casual participation in cheap porno flicks, her possible role as a blackmailer -- that the usually cynical McNulty would rather not acknowledge.

As the bartender and Janet alternately lock horns and brace suspects, regularly refueling their energies with booze and coke, they discover that nearly every one of the Oscar's habitués might make a credible killer. If they're not Runyonesque crooks, they are known wife beaters or have sexual assaults tucked away in their pasts. Although Lehane tends to tell more than he shows (difficult not to do in a first-person story), he revels in revealing the foibles behind his characters' façades. With the exception of Angelina and Janet's mother, whose disastrous disengagement from reality is rather too thorough to be swallowed whole (she's never forgiven her younger daughter for being molested by a college student when she was 10), this book's players are so real you can almost smell their deodorant. The author devotes equal care to portraying New York City in all of its hopeful, hyped and whoreish glory. He's especially successful at using small incidents and encounters to reflect larger truths. Consider, for instance, McNulty's observations during a walk along Riverside Drive, above the Hudson River: "A half dozen rats lay sunning themselves on the side of the hill. The sight of them scared me. If the city had to have rats, they should at least hide; they shouldn't be brazen, lying in the sun, they should run and hide when people came by. Something was terribly wrong with a place where the rats didn't have to hide. Like the drug dealers and the numbers joints and the illegal after-hours clubs and the crazy people from the SROs, they shouldn't be so readily visible, so out of control. It made me feel like no one was in charge -- that we were all like the animals in the wild with only our wits to rely on." As McNulty chases all over Manhattan, trying to identify the last person who saw Angelina alive, and determine whether that same individual was responsible for the subsequent murder of another Oscar's regular, Lehane gives us a disenchanted, barstool-to-barstool perspective on the Big Apple that isn't usually available without sacrificing 20 years in the life of your liver. Beware the Solitary Drinker is an impressive first taste of Lehane's talents. I, for one, am looking forward to the next round. — J. Kingston Pierce

(Read more about author Con Lehane here.)

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