Friday, 4 March 2011


In February 1970, Frankie Koehler, who'd been in and out of jails since he was 15, got into a fight with Pete McGinn and his friend Richie Glennon at McGinn's bar, Channel Seven, on New York's West Side. McGinn, who'd been on Koehler's case for knocking up the wife of a mutual friend who himself was in prison, beat Koehler badly, then went home. Koehler left, came back to Channel Seven with a gun, and with Glennon went to McGinn's apartment, ostensibly to settle things like gentlemen. There he proceeded to kill both men, wounded McGinn's uncle Charlie, and left McGinn's girlfriend unharmed. Then Frankie Koehler disappeared.

Twenty years later, Andy Rosenzweig, a career cop now chief of investigators for the Manhattan DA, had a flash of memory triggered by his knowing Glennon when he was a boy, and discovered that the murders had been declared cleared because Koehler was presumed dead. But finding no evidence for that presumption, Rosenzweig began looking for Koehler again, re-opening the case on his own time before it became official. Eventually, old fashioned police work paid off, and in a Grand Central Station scene worthy of a 1940s film noir, an armed and dangerous Koehler was arrested without a fight. 'If you've got witnesses, I'm fucked,' he said. They did, and he was.

Philip Gourevitch's true crime book was originally written as an article for the New Yorker, and it reads like it, the understated style unmistakeable in the way it takes the city for granted. This is not necessarily a bad thing; Joseph Mitchell, perhaps its finest exponent, used it to brilliant effect in Joe Gould's Secret, but also in the pieces collected in The Bottom Of The Harbor, to build a metaphor for a city that was disappearing as he watched, but before most observers were aware of its fade. And this in many ways is Gourevitch's theme, because the city was composed of people like Koehler, McGinn, and Glennon, and cops like Rosenzweig, and they are people who maybe don't exist any longer, or who exist with different, less firmly entrenched values.

He also writes well; the book reads at times like a piece of fiction, like a character study in short fiction. But the style I described above as understated could also be classified as detached, and sometimes, just as Koehler or Rosenzweig threaten to leap off the page, they seem to lose a dimension, becoming somewhat ethereal. And I'm half convinced this is deliberate, because what A Cold Case is really about is the shadowy New York that no longer exists, the smoky world of revenge and force that Koehler (seen at the right in 1962, when he was paroled, and eight years before killing two men; the inset photo is Rosenzweig as a beat cop, in the late 1960s) and to a lesser extent Rosenzweig, grew up in. It's about the codes of conduct for the men who populated the novels of David Goodis, or Day Keene, or Harry Whittington, about what happens to them as times change. And its about how just a bit of that morality from the Fifties survived in at least one cop who wouldn't let a case get closed when it wasn't. Murders like the ones Koehler committed seem to be more commonplace these days, they happen for perhaps less reason, and the killers don't, like Koehler, express a sort of sociopathic slight regret, for one of the murders, some three decades later when they are caught.

A Cold Case by Philip Gourevitch
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001, ISBN 0374125139

1 comment :

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