Review: Moe Prager is asked by his ex-wife to look into the murder of her sister, an EMT vilified by her colleagues and the press when, in an emergency situation, she refused to help one Robert Tillman, a man dying of a heart attack, in Hurt Machine, the seventh mystery in this series by Reed Farrel Coleman.
Moe is familiar with the story; any New Yorker would be. Two EMTs, Alta Conseco and Maya Watson, were in a restaurant when an employee, Tillman, collapsed in the kitchen, clearly in need of immediate assistance. Instead of helping, Alta told the management to call 911 and the two women left. They had been put on administrative duty afterwards, but now, two months later, Alta is dead, her partner Maya in hiding. The police don't seem to be all that anxious to solve the case, the EMT unit being, if not officially, at least in public opinion an extension of the services provided by city to protect and serve, with the women's actions reflecting badly on the force as a whole. Alta's sister, Carmella Melendez, Moe's ex, hires him to see what he can do to find her killer.
The cleverly devised murder mystery plot in Hurt Machine is one of the best, maybe the best, of the year. This is an intricate combination of whydunit and whodunit: why did Alta and Maya leave a man to die, and who killed Alta? After working on the case a bit, Moe tells Carmella, "If there's one thing I know for sure about any of this, it's that Alta and her partner refused to help the guy. And to be totally brutal about it, it seems to me it was Alta's call. She was the one who made the decision not to treat the guy. What I can't understand is why?" He decides he's approaching the case all wrong: "I had to work backwards from Alta's murder, not forward from Tillman's death." He manages to put the pieces together for the whydunit, but the whodunit eludes him as his expectation that the solution to one part of the puzzle would lead to the answer to the other doesn't, in fact, come to be true.
As good as all this is, there is a major element of the book, however, that really doesn't work.
It isn't at all clear why being a good, smart, clever private investigator isn't enough for authors of modern crime novels. Why saddle them with relationship issues, family problems, personal demons, and more when it isn't necessary … and more importantly, when it is largely a distraction from the primary reason readers buy mysteries? In the present book, Moe is diagnosed with stomach cancer. Does this enhance the murder mystery plot in any way? Does it develop in any meaningful manner his already well-established character? Does the fact that he's mortal and dying change in any way how he approaches the case? No, to all of the above. Tragic though his condition may be, Moe's reflection on it — and to some degree his life thus far — seems more appropriate for the screenplay of a movie-of-the-week, not a first-rate crime novel, and feels like mere filler here. If this were the last book in the series, if Moe were to die at the end, then maybe — maybe — this would all be more relevant. But — small spoiler? — Moe doesn't die, and a next book in the series is almost assured given how strong this one is … murder mystery-wise, that is.
Acknowledgment: Tyrus Books provided an ARC of Hurt Machine for this review.
Review Copyright © 2011 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved
Selected reviews of other mysteries by this author …
The Book of Ghosts
Mysterious Press (Ebook), February 2013
ISBN-13: 9781453261071; ISBN-10: 1453261079
Location(s) referenced in Hurt Machine: New York City
— ♦ —
Hurt Machine by Reed Farrel Coleman — A Moses "Moe" Prager Mystery
Publisher: Tyrus Books
Publication Date: December 2011
List Price: $24.95