Book: Red Hook

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Red Hook

Author: Gabriel Cohen
Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur

It’s not the dead body—Jack Leightner has seen hundred of bodies in his tour with the NYPD. It’s not the dank setting—the narrow banks along Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal. So why does the sight of the fatally stabbed young man make the detective almost faint in the canal’s tangled weeds?

Jack doesn’t understand why he becomes obsessed with this low-priority case, why he allows it to jeopardize his career and even his life. Especially since the investigation draws him exactly where he doesn’t want to go: into the heart of Red Hook. The neighborhood is Leightner’s bad dream, scene of his troubled childhood and a terrible secret.

The place also compels Jack’s estranged son Ben, a young documentary filmmaker fascinated by its history. The Hook has been home to dockworkers and drug dealers, Al Capone and Joey Gallo, a giant public housing project, and one of the nation’s greatest ports. Ben wants to find out why the once-thriving waterfront community has become a beautiful ruin—and why it has damaged his own family. In Gabriel Cohen’s gripping first novel, this strange terrain is where Jack Leightner must seek his own redemption—and even, perhaps, the salvation of Red Hook itself. More than a crime story, Red Hook is a deep and sympathetic exploration of the mysteries of human nature, the curse and blessings of family, and one unforgettable place.


Penzler Pick, October 2001: Here’s the evocative first paragraph of this accomplished debut novel, seeped in the atmosphere of the once vibrant but now desolate Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook:

The Gowanus Canal was a bilious green. Long ago, Brooklyn kids had jumped in off its narrow banks to shout and splash around, but more than a century’s worth of raw sewage and pollution from the adjoining factories had rendered the water unfit for every living thing except some algae and a tiny perverse species called killifish. Its opaque depths kept many secrets, but by a stroke of luck this corpse was not one of them.

Detective Jack Leightner of Brooklyn’s South Homicide Task Force is the honcho brought in to give a hand to the local precinct. It is not only his years of experience scooping out murder scenes that will be called into play. This is the neighborhood where he grew up, the son of a dockworker, and it’s the place that’s left a hole in his heart: “Going back to Red Hook was love shot through with pain….” Even Raymond Chandler could not have envisioned streets this mean. As a former patrol partner of Jack’s once described Red Hook, it was somewhere “you didn’t have to look hard to find a place to piss out in the open.”

The dead man wasn’t mob-connected or even a petty criminal; he was a hard- working family man with a respectable job, running the service elevator in a fancy Manhattan Eastside building. As Jack Leightner attempts to discover what brought poor Tomas Berrios to his date with a lethally wielded knife, he is forced to confront his own ghosts and to deal with his own agonizing memories of a long-ago corpse with a similar wound.

It’s a familiar setup—the veteran cop with a diminished ability to understand his own emotions or to express them—but Cohen breathes fresh life into it. Atmospheric and shot through with moments of real human truth, Red Hook is a first mystery that feels like it’s been around forever—and I mean that in the best sense. —Otto Penzler

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