Grief can define a person — it certainly does former cop Gus Murphy, who has not recovered from the sudden death last year of his 20-year-old son, John Jr. Grief destroyed his marriage, estranged him for a while from his daughter and constantly remains on his mind. Losing a child "was really the answer ... to any questions about me, because it defined me. Who I was, where I came from, all the answers, none of it mattered."
In his second novel about Gus, Coleman delivers an action-packed thriller strengthened by solid character studies. The brisk plot delves into the dark corners of Long Island — and the people who live there. But a reliance on coincidence almost derails "What You Break."
Gus now ekes out a living working security and driving a courtesy van for a down-at-heels hotel in Suffolk County. As much as he wants to forget his past, Gus remains the consummate investigator. An odd exchange between a hotel guest and night bellman Slava Podalak prompts Gus to follow them to a shady part of town where he witnesses a murder. Gus knows that Slava had a violent history in Russia, though the details have never been discussed. Gus also is pulled into another investigation when his close friend, Bill Kilkenny, who is a former priest, asks him to work for the wealthy Micah Spears whose granddaughter was murdered. Her killer is in jail but Micah wants to know why his granddaughter was targeted.
Coleman's affinity for involving plots elevates "What You Break," and shows why he has just been nominated for an Edgar Award for the first novel in this series. But the focus on coincidence — and an uber violent ending — almost detract from the story. "What You Break" is strongest when Coleman takes a tour of Suffolk County, showing the seedy and the affluent areas. Gus' existential musings illustrate his complicated personality and show why he is worth rooting for. He just wants to be able to sleep at night.
"What You Break," By Reed Farrel Coleman (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 366 pages, $27)