In Where it Hurts, Reed Farrel Coleman’s John Augustus Murphy is a former cop, brought low and hurting after the unexpected death of his teenage son, John Jr.. And where you might expect a cliche – troubled cop’s son ODs or good cop’s son killed by bad guys, for example – what you get is sheer bad luck. Gus’ son died on an outdoor basketball court, playing with his friends, thanks to a previously undetected heart defect. And in many ways, that’s the theme of Murphy’s life – you do everything you can to get some answers. And sometimes there just aren’t any.
Gus couldn’t handle his son’s death. Neither could his wife, Annie, or his daughter, Kassie. So now they’re divorced and Kassie’s dropped out of college. Gus drives the courtesy shuttle at an airport hotel, serves as hotel security and sometime bouncer for the hotel bar. That’s what he’s doing when a face from his past drops in. A low-level criminal that Gus had arrested more than once, Tommy Delacamino, shows up at the hotel with a sad story and $3000 in a paper bag. Tommy’s son TJ was beaten, tortured, killed and dumped, his body in a plastic bag… and the cops aren’t doing anything about it. They’re not even following up on the leads that Tommy gave them, thanks to his own amateur sleuthing. He wants Gus to help. Why Gus? “Because you were the rightest cop I ever met,” says Tommy. But Gus thinks Tommy’s trying to take advantage of the fact they both have dead sons, and he turns a cold shoulder.
Pretty quick, Gus is sorry. But when he goes to tell Tommy he’ll help him, it’s too late. Tommy’s dead – shot in the head – and his place has been thoroughly ransacked. Before he knows is, Gus is neck-deep in Tommy’s friends and business associates, then TJ’s, and when he starts to nose around, he gets told in no uncertain terms by his former cop colleagues to forget about it. Stick to driving the shuttle. But Gus taken the bit, and there’s no stopping him. He thinks if he can somehow get to the bottom of this mystery, it will make up, in some karmic way, for the random loss of his own son.
There are strong noir elements in this book, violence, despair, even fatalism. But Where it Hurts also has hope. Some of his old cop colleagues are dirty, but some help him. He has lost his old social ties, but he has made new ones, and they are faithful and true. He and his wife have both suffered and have torn each other apart… but they still have affection, and are moving on, waking up, learning to love others if not each other. And at the end of the day, Gus has solved the mystery and there has been justice of sorts, if not the justice he originally envisioned. Well-done. #2 in the Gus Murphy series is out – What You Break – and I’ll be there.
It’s almost not worth comparing Where it Hurts to The Ex. Readers who have been following the reviews and rankings will know that I while I found some things to like about The Ex, I also found it to be shallow and manipulative, with a “surprise” ending that wasn’t much of a surprise. Where it Hurts introduces complex and believable characters and makes you care about them while delivering a twisty and compelling plot. My only complaint? Perhaps a few too may near misses. (Gus lives and a retired dentist dies because Gus drops his car keys? Just saying.)
This is Coleman’s fourth Edgar nomination – he was up for Best Novel once before, Best Paperback Original, and Best Short Story. Could be the fourth time is the charm. Where It Hurts is certainly the one to beat!
Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel