Rising to the top

Brighton a powerhouse thriller

by Jeffrey Mannix

There is a pile of books here on my desk that’s eye high and threatening damage to my beloved old MacBook and to possibly even disable my QWERTY hand and put me out of business.

You may remember me saying that I read on average 10 books to find and bring Murder Ink readers one outstanding novel. I’m easily disappointed and pretty ruthless, so most of those nine books that don’t make the cut are only partially read before disclosing their mediocrity. This teetering pile of books shadowing my keyboard is made up of the keepers, and each just happens to be terrific, which is rare to find in one pile. In “Murder Ink,” I review (recommend is a better word) only the very best books, the ones with exceptional plots and artistic writing. Some aren’t worth owning because, while they are entertaining in a unique or peculiar way, they wouldn’t ever be read again. However, most are worth owning, and each book in this menacing pile next to me is worth shelling out the dough to own, lend and read again sometime. 

The standout, the book on top, is Brighton, by Michael Harvey, a book rushed to me overnight last week by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, released in cloth cover three weeks ago. Brighton is a perfect follow up to Dodgers, reviewed here on June 2, about inner city criminal culture, and Ecco thought they had a book exceptional enough to FedEx a copy to Durango for exposure to our now famous criminally literate. 

Brighton is a different animal than Dodgers, though. More literary in its character and plot development, as contrasted to Dodgers’ quick, sketchy and exciting incredulity of actors and events – like the difference between a film shot in color and another filmed in black & white on wet city asphalt.  

Creating characters vulnerable and brave is Harvey’s artistry. Putting them to the test in all too real situations that affect our culture makes literature. The blighted housing projects of Brighton, Mass., like all ill-conceived ghettos in every large city, breed crime and ruin the lives of nearly everyone confined within the graffitied walls, barred windows and damaged chain-link fence caging everything. The Boston suburb of Brighton contains real people with hopes and dreams – and mostly fears. The lucky ones who get out of these roach- and rat- and garbage-infested ghettos are usually gifted athletes, or dead. But there’s always that one kid out of nearly all the others who lives to a certain age has an uncle or teacher or coach or older friend he or she connects with who can reach into a damaged mind and force goals beyond inherited reach. Kevin Pearce is that kid in Brighton, and Bobby Scales, a wiseguy drug dealer, criminal entrepreneur and standup mensch who knows right from wrong and good from bad is Kevin’s white knight.

Michael Harvey himself grew up in Brighton, and if he didn’t know a Kevin Pearce, he was a Kevin Pearce and knows how a man among men can affect a kid who shows a glimmer of promise. Bobby Scales was that ticket out for Kevin, appearing from the shadows with an attaboy whenever Kevin played a good baseball game, or there to lure Kevin away from the neighborhood gang off to rob or fight a punk who dissed one of their sisters. Since Bobby was 15 and Kevin was 12, Kevin had a champion and was headed for a higher life expectancy.

One day, though, Kevin comes home to find his little sister Bridget covered in blood from a knife slashing, and his grandmother, up in her apartment on the top floor of their tenement house, disemboweled next to an empty coffee can where she kept her stashed tens and twenties. A mostly hinted-at one-page scene for the gore avoiders like me, but a necessary plot twist to take this story halfway to the moon.

It doesn’t take long before Kevin ferrets out the perp and in a blind rage he’s never experienced before goes to kill Curtis Jordan with a gun he’s never fired or even held. But Bobby – ever the paladin – IDs Jordan from the street thrum and arrives a moment after Kevin.

This is my stop, the place where I get off. You’ll just have to go down to Maria’s to buy this durable book. Suffice to say that Bobby insists that Kevin leave Brighton and never return. 

Twenty-seven years later, Kevin, a new Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Boston Globe, comes back to Brighton to give his Pulitzer to the widow of his story. Nothing’s changed in Brighton. Bobby greets him: “Congratulations on the Pulitzer, Kev; what are you doing here?” When you’re on the streets in Brighton you are of the streets, the streets know you’re there. It doesn’t take a day before Kevin’s live-in girlfriend, a top Boston assistant DA covering Brighton, tells him that an undercover cop was shot dead that day with the same gun that shot dead Curtis Jordan 27 years ago, and what can Kevin find out about the curious connection. The plot, it simmers and thickens just so deliciously. 

Harvey has worked hard on Brighton, and it shows. He’ll win prizes for this beauty. His characters are real enough to smell who smokes and who has bad gums, and the atmosphere is electric, oppressive and virulent. A powerhouse of a thriller, Brighton is a riveting and elegiac exploration of promises broken, debts owed, and old wrongs made right … no matter what the cost (right off the jacket and spot on).

And that pile of books threatening for attention? I’ll review them all in August, as long as another New York publicist doesn’t spend more to ship me a new release than the cover price.