AN HONEST LIVING, by Dwyer Murphy
Early on in Dwyer Murphy’s moody neo-noir crime novel, “An Honest Living,” the narrator, a disillusioned lawyer at a prestigious Manhattan firm, receives a parting gift from a client: a baseball bat with his name engraved on the side. Dwight Murphy, it reads. “They were only off by a few letters,” he notes.
This is the sole hint we get of the protagonist’s name, though the parallels between author and character don’t end there. Our lawyer will soon quit his firm to go out on his own, handling petty disputes and a few murky “criminal matters.” The writer Murphy was also once a litigator at a prestigious Manhattan firm before diving into his own version of matters — editing the popular crime-fiction website CrimeReads.
Murphy’s lonely, misanthropic narrator, fitted with the soul of a poet and the ethics of a dice thrower, is hired by a wealthy young woman to investigate the illicit behavior of her estranged husband. The narrator quickly catches the husband in the act; However, it turns out that the woman who hired him was only masquerading as the man’s wife. Following the rules of the noir genre, the would-be detective is ruled by the stars of pride and lust, determined to discover who duped him even as he finds himself inexplicably drawn to an enigmatic femme fatale, the real wife.
You don’t need to be a noir junkie to recognize this setup as a homage to Roman Polanski’s 1974 film “Chinatown.” But while Polanski’s masterpiece revolved around speculation on the water supply of the late-1930s Los Angeles, Murphy’s debut novel centers on the New York antiquarian-book world and, ultimately, the development rights of the Brooklyn waterfront.
The estranged husband is a book expert named Newton Reddick, and his illicit behavior is trying to sell some of his wife’s rare first editions. His wife, Anna Reddick, is a famous novelist as well as an heiress to an old Manhattan fortune. When the case is further complicated by a convenient suicide in a transient motel in Queens, Anna hires the narrator to investigate, sending him a box of her husband’s books as a potential clue.
This mission leads our gumshoe scrambling high and low through New York City for answers. But the book’s primary lesson is clear from the first page. As with Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” the title of this novel is a joke — there’s no such thing as an honest living. Everyone is trying to game the system and skim as much off the top as possible.
Even textbook noir isn’t always easy to follow, and Murphy’s novel has its share of plot holes and meandering detours. Let’s not forget that one of the genre’s principal joys is not its cunning deductions (track the logic of, say, the 1947 movie “Out of the Past” at your own peril), but its rich, gritty atmosphere and sultry style. We come for Sam Spade, for drooping cigarettes and popped trench-coat collars and pithy ripostes muttered from unshaven faces — not for what was ultimately so valuable about that cursed falcon statuette. It is precisely style and atmosphere that give “An Honest Living” so much electricity and dimension. Like the best noir practitioners, Murphy uses the mystery as scaffolding to assemble a world of fallen dreams and doom-bitten characters.
The novel is set in the mid-aughts, when BlackBerrys, Chelsea flea markets and the rougher edges of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, still existed. Murphy’s hard-boiled rendering of the city is nothing short of exquisite. It’s a landscape of reeking garbage, of salty rain sweeping off the ocean, of Midtown towers that look “ghostly like a mountain range,” of 24-hour diners and warehouse parties, and of tiny, oddball delights, like discursions on bagel shops or the slowness of the G train, or when the narrator looks through a brownstone window to watch a middle-aged man try on 10 different bathrobes. For anyone who wants a portrait of this New York, few recent books have conjured it so vividly. For those who demand a straightforward mystery without any humor, romance and ambience, well, forget it, Jake, it’s literature.
Christopher Bollen is the author of five novels. His latest, “The Lost Americans,” comes out next year.
AN HONEST LIVING, by Dwyer Murphy | 288 pp. | Viking | $26