Saints of New York is the 8th book from Birmingham-born crime titan R.J. Ellory. The tale opens with Frank Parrish, alcoholic NYPD detective, trying and failing to talk a junkie out of a murder/suicide. From then on, trouble mounts for the beleaguered Parrish, as heroin dealer Danny Lange and his sister are each found murdered. Danny’s death is hardly a surprise, but the murder of his innocent, unassuming sister raises difficult questions for Parrish and his colleagues; these questions become more urgent as the death toll begins to rise.
Parrish ticks all the regulation boxes for the character of a maverick cop; heavy drinking, under investigation by the brass, struggling with a lack of self-worth, family life ruined. It is a testament to Ellory’s skill that he is able to create a character with such resounding vitality. Ellory strips away the decades of cliché, writing with such psychological intuitiveness that Parrish appears to be unique. As he hits the bars, jousts with his police-appointed psychologist and flouts regulations, Parrish allows us to rediscover the very essence of what makes maverick cops so fascinating. He is the beaten down hero of last resort; if he doesn’t see the case through to the end, no-one will.
Ellory steers clear of idle dualities; Parrish commits good deeds, bad deeds, and a broad spectrum of deeds in between. He is kind to local children, but interferes in the lives of his own. He takes cases from other cops in the name of justice, but ignores procedure to get them closed.
Much of the depth of Parrish’s character is explored through his daily sessions with a psychotherapist. These scenes are incisive; examining Parrish’s relationship with his father (legendary NYPD cop, known to be corrupt only by Frank) in depth, but without resorting to the tedium of Freudian analysis or other such frameworks. In his improvement through therapy and a degree of introspection, Parrish edges closer to the redemption which lies at the heart of the book. Indeed, in a few short chapters, Frank’s shrink opens up his character more than Dr Melfi managed to with Tony Soprano across eight years.
As much as Saints of New York is a character piece and a story of redemption, it is also a work of historical fiction. This is absolute catnip for Mafia fans, with the history of the New York Mafia examined in depth, from the details of the Lufthansa heist of 1978, to the mob’s social and political influence within New York society. Ellory, an English writer writing about America, was rejected endlessly by publishers on the grounds of his national handicap. In Saints of New York, he trounces American authors on their own turf; this is a work of sheer, audacious brilliance.
Saints of New York has everything a crime novel needs, and more. There is a searing analysis of the human condition, a faithful and fascinating retelling of Mafia folklore, a heartfelt examination of a father-and-son relationship across death’s great divide, and also, of course, a murder investigation. That investigation is as procedurally faithful as the very best of its ilk, drawing out Frank’s skill and tenacity, and culminating in a finale of tremendous, knuckle-whitening force.
To read this solely as a mystery though, would be hopelessly missing the point. Ellory fuses human drama, social commentary, history and philosophy to create something which transcends genre. What’s more, if you listen carefully while reading, you can almost hear the sound of countless publishing houses kicking themselves.
This post was submitted by Mike Stafford.