Gabriel Cohen’s debut novel Red Hook was nominated for the Edgar award, and he is also the author of The Ninth Step, The Graving Dock, and Neptune Avenue, all of which feature Detective Jack Leightner of the Brooklyn South Homicide Task Force. You know a crime author is on the right track when he gets praise not just from the usual suspects of industry mags, but when it comes from pros like John Cornicello, Lt. Commander of the NYPD’s Brooklyn North Homicide Squad, who said of The Graving Dock: “A story that engages the reader from the first page, and a gripping tale of mystery and suspense. You will be treated to a behind-the-scenes look at a world known only to the New York detective.”
Of course the regular critics like Cohen’s work too. Reviewing the same title, the Washington Post Book World found it a “dark, lustrous police procedural.” Kirkus Reviews called his 2009 novel, Neptune Avenue “an impeccable procedural plus a poignant love story, intelligent, understated and refreshing,” and the same publication also raved about his 2010 release, The Ninth Step: “Deftly plotted and convincingly written. Cohen once more does the genre proud.”
Gabriel, it is great to have you with us on Scene of the Crime. You have been highly praised not only for your deft characterization and plotting, but also for the evocation of your own personal scene of the crime, Brooklyn.
First, could you describe your connection to Brooklyn?
I have lived in Brooklyn for the past 21 years and found that it’s an inexhaustible source of fascinating settings (and crime scenes), ranging from the gritty and wild yet very likable boardwalk of Coney Island to the grand but crumbling Civil War-era warehouses along the Red Hook waterfront. And it’s populated by many little cultural and ethnic enclaves that make for great settings, from the Little Pakistan in my new novel to the Little Odessa in my third.
I created a protagonist who works as a detective for the Brooklyn South Homicide task force so he wouldn’t just be tied to one precinct and one small area. My detective gets to roam across lots of different worlds across the borough–which means that I do too.
What things about Brooklyn make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
One of the main things is that you tend to get people from very different cultures living right next to each other. Little Pakistan for example, which is just a few blocks from where I live now, is also right next to a very Hassidic neighborhood. And you have East Indians living here too. You can see signs on cafes or delis that say “Pakistani and Indian food.” Now, back home in Pakistan and India, those countries are at each others’ throats, but here you have Hindus and Muslims and Jews all living together in some kind of workable peace. I think a major fact of life in New York City is that people here often see that they have more common ground as immigrants here than they ever would at home.
The genesis and plotting of my books is totally tied to a sense of place. I love to explore parts of New York that are not gentrified or touristy. My books have taken me to the weird subterranean world under the Coney Island boardwalk and the odd, rough-and tumble neighborhood just inland of the amusement park (which few tourists ever venture into), the bizarre intersection of Caribbean and Hassidic culture in Crown Heights, the turf of Joey Gallo and the Italian mafia in Red Hook in the 60s, and many other locations.
I love to find a mystery in a place itself. In the last several years, for example, Governors Island, just off the south tip of Manhattan and across a short channel from Brooklyn, has been opened to the public, but for many decades before that it was an inaccessible Army base, and then a Coast Guard base. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers commuted past it every day, but very few knew what went on there. (It was a mystery hidden in plain sight.) It had its own school, churches, bowling alley, movie theater, and Burger King.
Or, to take another example, fifty years ago Red Hook was an incredibly thriving waterfront neighborhood filled with longshoremen, shipbuilders, and sailors. Now its population has dropped by half and it’s a very quiet, rather ramshackle place. Why? I had to write a book to find out.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
I’m very conscious of place, and so is my protagonist, Jack Leightner. He knows his home neighborhood in Brooklyn, but he constantly has to enter other neighborhoods and cultures that are foreign to him and try to figure them out, and that’s a crucial part of his work and life.
In my first book, Red Hook, I created three generations of one family who could see the same place in very different ways. Jack’s father was a longshoremen who lived in the neighborhood in its great heyday. Jack saw it decline, and now looks at it with some sadness and disgust. But his son, a young aspiring documentary filmmaker, sees beauty in its raw, rather ruined wildness (as I do myself).
One crucial point is that the neighborhoods in my books can’t be just factually or historically interesting—they’re thick with emotion for the characters who move through them or live in them: nostalgia for times past, mistrust of change, sadness, or hope, or dreams. In other words, they mean something very personal to the characters, and I hope the reader will soak in that feeling as well.
How does Jack Leightner interact with his surroundings?
Part of the fun of the series is creating a true-blue Brooklynite who looks at its recent changes with a rather jaundiced eye, as Jack does when he sees young twenty-something hipsters and French bistros and sushi restaurants taking over Carroll Gardens, a neighborhood that was once filled with pizzerias and elderly Italians sittting on the sidewalks in lawn chairs.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
Reviewers tend to pick up on the fact that a sense of place is essential to my writing. I was pleased, for example, when Booklist said that “Cohen’s novels belong, with those of Norman Green, at the top of every Brooklyn crime-fiction list.” And I sometimes get e-mails from elderly Brooklynites, now often living in other parts of the country, who say that my books brought back strong memories of the borough for them.
Here’s a short section from Neptune Avenue, in which Jack Leightner is in Coney Island but then travels to neighboring Brighton Beach:
“Walk fifteen minutes along the weathered gray boardwalk, though, and everything changed.
“As a boy, Jack had come to Brighton Beach several times a year to visit his uncle Leon, who always had a box of saltwater taffy ready for his nephews. Back then the neighborhood had been different, filled with European immigrants. In the past few decades the Russians had taken over. You heard the language everywhere, as Jack did when he emerged from his car on Brighton Beach Avenue, the neighborhood’s main shopping artery. It was like passing through some kind of Star Trek transporter machine. The place was known as Little Odessa, because so many people from that region had emigrated here, and they had done their best to recreate a world of seaside cafés and glitzy nightclubs. They filled the avenue, buying foods from home and cheap, flashy clothes. There was something elemental and doughy about them; they had grown up on meat and potatoes, and potatoes alone when there was no meat. The old women looked like little plump doves, their men like bare-knuckles boxers who hadn’t been very good at protecting their faces.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
Martin Cruz Smith has made brilliant use of place, setting Polar Star, for example, in the fascinating closed world of a Siberian commercial fishing ship, or Wolves Eat Dogs next to the insanity of Chernobyl. And some people complain that James Lee Burke gets too caught up in his descriptions of the bayous of Louisiana, but I always enjoy his very vivid, rich paragraphs that can make you really see and smell and taste that world. I also admire how Lawrence Block took mundane Hell’s Kitchen, such an unusual part of Manhattan, far off the tourist map, and made it his setting.
Thanks much, Gabriel for a great discussion of Brooklyn as the perfect scene of the crime.
For more information on Gabriel Cohen, see his author homepage.