The character names alone set the gritty landscape—Gus Murphy (our hero), Tommy Delcamino, Kareem Shivers and Frankie Tacos. Those are character names worthy of Chandler or Leonard or Block.
We’re on Long Island, the overlooked sections with dive bars like Harrigan’s. “It was a classic loser’s bar. The kind of place where even the young men were old. Where the Daily Racing Form passed for the news of the world and where the light of day was the common enemy.” The entire novel unfolds against a gritty backdrop and Coleman takes every opportunity to name overlooked towns and unremarkable roads.
Gus Murphy is a retired Suffolk County cop with a weight on his shoulders, the sudden death of his son two years earlier. It happened one day on the basketball court, when the boy was felled by an undiagnosed heart defect. The death has wrecked his family and now Gus works as a courtesy van driver for a nowhere hotel. Gus is just hoping to put one foot in front of the other and find a way to get by.
Where It Hurts (such a great title) is part mystery novels and part literary study in grief. “Even a spare minute was a chance to relieve the last two years,” thinks Gus. “Took forever to live it. Takes only seconds to live it again. I had tried filling in the fissures, cracks, and cavities with wondering, wondering about the trick of time. That got me about as far as wishing. Nowhere.”
The last thing Gus wants is to get pulled in on a case involving an ex-con, the aforementioned Tommy Delcamino. Tommy’s son TJ was found dead four months earlier and the Suffolk County PD doesn’t seem, well, motivated to figure out what happened. Gus is reluctant, for many reasons, and then he starts running into people who spend a great deal of time and effort trying to discourage him from getting involved. When he encounters real trouble, and more, Gus feels suddenly revived, “alive again in the midst of spilled blood.”
Needless to say, Gus Murphy finds the motivation to poke around and soon he’s plenty entangled. His slow-motion descent into the fray, coupled with the relentless gravity of the feelings of loss about his dead son, anchor the story in a feeling of genuine pain. At times dialogue-rich like George V. Higgins and other times neatly procedural like Michael Connelly, Where It Hurts presents a solid character with troubled shoulders leaning into very real problems, both internal and external.
Those problems show Gus a possible path to healing, but will he take it? Or does he want his pain to rule over everything else? Gus knows where it hurts, it’s up to him whether he wants to the pain to linger forever or make a change. Where It Hurts isn’t all action. There’s a fair amount of talk over beverages. But when the action comes, it’s real and it’s carrying a certain weight.
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