You know the hero of Philip Gourevitch’s A Cold Case. Raymond Chandler described him years ago in his essay, “The Simple Art of Murder”:
“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is nether tarnished nor afraid. The detective …is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.”
At a time when most crime fiction still holds to the myth of the crusading individual detective—whether it is cozy, hardboiled, or police procedural fiction—the fact that Gourevitch chooses such a model for his hero Andy Rosenzweig should hardly be surprising. But Andy Rosenzweig is a real man. And A Cold Case, in Gourevitch’s spare, clean prose, both celebrates that man and recognizes that the age of the lone detective may be over.
A Cold Case begins with the brutal murder of restaurateur Pete McGinn and his friend Richie Glennon at the hands of Frankie Koehler. Koehler, Cagney-obsessed and hardened by reform school, was living the large life of a small time crook in sixties New York. Booze. Broads. Bar fights. But on February 18, 1970, that life ended. Koehler, bruised and humiliated after an argument with McGinn and Glennon turned violent, returned to avenge his beating. Koehler murdered them in cold blood, yet he left a witness alive. The case should have been closed quickly, but Koehler took it on the lam. The case languished because Koehler disappeared. Finally, the police believed Koehler was dead and marked the case closed out of bureaucratic convenience. Koehler had beaten the rap.
Twenty-seven years after the murder, though, Andy Rosenzweig, Bogey to Koehler’s Cagney, decided to re-open the investigation. The murders of McGinn and Glennon had haunted Rosenzeweig since his early days on the force. Rosenzweig drove the renewed investigation but kept hitting dead ends. Was Koehler alive? Was Koehler living under an assumed identity? Was he in New Jersey? California? Would he ever see justice?
What you leave A Cold Case with is the critical awareness of the tension between the actions of individuals and the impossibility of individual police investigation. There are no Marlowes any more. But the individual, at least in Gourevitch’s narrative, looms large. His portrait of Koehler almost seems like a character out of Dostoevsky—a sinner caught between the Bible and Nietzsche. As Koehler himself writes in a letter to Gourevitch, “I spent a lifetime hating a world I never made, and people who had nothing to do with making it. Then I got a world that I could make and turned it to shit. That’s a sin and a big one.” Andy Rosenzweig acts against the complacency of modern life. He reopens a case that could have remained closed without anyone noticing. While the book occasionally betrays its roots as a series of New Yorker articles, and is only a scant 182 pages, it remains an elegiac portrait of both the heroic detective and a lost New York.