So here we go with another historical crime novel – David C. Taylor’s Night Life. It’s his debut novel and it garnered an Edgar nomination for Mystery Writers of America Best Novel. Well-done, Taylor!
It’s 1954, and the cold war is in the deep freeze. Michael Cassidy’s a New York City detective, smart, sometimes violent but only with a good reason, who has odd dreams that sometimes come true. Cassidy and his partner Tony Orso are called to investigate the torture and murder of Alex Ingram, who coincidentally was a dancer in a show that Tom Cassidy, his father, is producing. Cassidy discovers a half-dollar coin in a buff envelope taped inside Ingram’s locker at the theater.
Things spiral from there, with an ever-widening scope of investigation, a growing body count, and plenty of interest from the FBI, CIA, and even Senator Joseph McCarthy, who finds a communist everywhere he looks. He may be an obsessive nut job, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t real communist spies hard at work right here in NYC. It turns out that Ingram was a KGB sleeper agent with a sideline in blackmail.
On the personal front, Cassidy’s expecting retaliation from Franklin, a vice cop-slash-pimp. Cassidy not only interrupted Franklin mid-assault on a hooker, but threw him out a window. And he’s distracted by a new resident of his apartment building, a comely young woman who’s a welder working for an artist, bringing his metal sculptures to life. (She wields a pretty mean baseball bat, too, rescuing Cassidy when Franklin’s buddies give him a beating in the apartment hallway.) He’s close to his brother, Brian and sister, Leah, but not so close to his father, Tom. His mother killed herself, more or less accidentally, taking an overdose of pills when she thought Tom would be coming home and would rescue her, thus bringing them closer together. Unfortunately, Tom is essentially selfish, decided not to keep his promise, and teenage Michael discovered his mother’s cold body.
More about Cassidy’s father. More problems there. He was born in Russia – Tomas Kasnavietski – emigrating to the US at age 15. A staunch believer in the American dream, he’s surprised and dismayed to find that in 1954 America, Tom Cassidy’s about to be deported back to Russia. His faith in his son and his friends to rescue him is unshaken. Unfortunately, the friend is “Uncle Frank,” a mobster who wants a favor from Cassidy.
Fortunately, Cassidy’s a good detective, a smart negotiator and a good bluffer, with a stalwart partner and chutzpah to spare. Still, it could have all gone sideways if it were not for his prophetic dreams… at the moment when the bad guys are about to ambush him, Cassidy recognizes the location and the sinking sense of dread from a recurrent dream. It gives him the warning he needs to be the one left standing.
I’m very impressed with author David Taylor. Night Life is tightly plotted, the coincidences not all that unlikely, the motivations for all clear and character-driven, and the integration of historical figures critical to the story, not distracting add-ons. I understand that this is the first in a series featuring Det. Michael Cassidy, and I’ll be right there to read more in the future. (In fact, book #2, Night Work, launched earlier this month.)
How does Night Life stack up to the other nominees? Very, very well. It’s eminently readable, like The Strangler Vine. It’s got excellent pacing and similar switches in POV to keep up the suspense, as with Life or Death. It’s got that paranormal aspect to it, as does Let Me Die in His Footsteps. And it incorporates real-life historical figures, as does The Lady From Zagreb. In fact, considering the whole package, I’m going to give Taylor’s debut mystery the top spot. I may have reviewer’s regret when I review and rank the final nominee, Canary, and make some changes. But time is running out, as the Edgars will be awarded Thursday!
Literary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best Novel