A beautiful young French girl walks into a bar, nervously lights a cigarette, and begs the bartender for help in finding her missing artist brother. In a moment of weakness, the bartender–a drifter named Caesar Stiles with a damaged past and a Sicilian family curse hanging over him–agrees. What follows is a stylish literary mystery set in Brooklyn on the dawn of gentrification. While Caesar is initially trying to earn an honest living at the neighborhood watering hole, his world quickly unravels. In addition to being haunted by his past, including a brother who is intent on settling an old family score, Caesar is being hunted down by a mysterious nemesis known as The Orange Man. Adding to this combustible mix, Caesar is a white man living in a deep-rooted African American community with decidedly mixed feelings about his presence. In the course of his search for the French girl’s missing brother, Caesar tumbles headlong into the shadowy depths of his newly adopted neighborhood, where he ultimately uncovers some of its most sinister secrets…
With the news that Andrew Cotto’s Outerborough Blues will be available in the UK from this Thursday, and having made the final cut in Raven’s Top 5 reads of 2012, I couldn’t resist re-posting my review of this truly excellent read. Well worth seeking out crime fans!
When you read and review regularly, you can sometimes get a little jaded as books can oftentimes meld into one, or display all those bad writing habits of one-dimensional characters, ludicrous plotting and so on. However, every so often an unexpected treasure lands in your lap which restores your faith, and Andrew Cotto’s Outerborough Blues is one such book. Combining the style of some of the best contemporary American fiction (I would draw comparisons with David Prete and Elliot Perlman) and the street savvy social analysis of a writer like George Pelecanos, Cotto has delivered a book that rises above the simple tag of crime novel into a truly powerful and affecting read.
I won’t dwell on the intricacies of the plot in the interests of keeping it fresh and surprising for you all, but needless to say it is beautifully weighted, with the alternating time frames of past and present, seamlessly melded into the overall story. As elements of our main protagonist Caesar’s former life are revealed, Cotto gradually unveils how the events of the past are so instrumental on Caesar’s actions and for his single-mindedness at righting past wrongs in the present, so the split timelines work well within the narrative. All of Caesar’s central relationships in the book are dictated to by his highly attuned sense of morality, garnered by his formerly tumbleweed existence and the relationships encountered along the way, before his settling in a community wracked by racial tension and socio-economic problems. Cotto portrays this community and its underlying problems astutely, bringing Caesar into conflict or comradeship with his fellow inhabitants, as he takes on the problems of those around him and seeks to expose the corruption of others. In any of the passages relating to the neighbourhood itself there is a living and breathing vitality to Cotto’s description and the depiction of place and atmosphere is palpable throughout.
Again, in terms of characterisation, Cotto hits the mark, displaying a natural ease in his portrayal of not only Caesar’s family, but the eclectic mix of people inhabiting Caesar’s neighbourhood and its multi-cultural make-up. All the frailties or false bravado of human nature are exposed throughout these characters and their interactions with Caesar, which again gives a vibrant sense of reality to these protagonists and the parts they play within the novel. This is predominantly where I think the novel rises above the crime novel tag, as this proficiency at characterisation seldom resonates so strongly in a run-of-the-mill thriller and in conjunction with Cotto’s use of powerful imagery in his depiction of place, sets this book apart. The sparseness of the prose and tight dialogue, where more often the power lies within what is unsaid than said, adds to the overall tension of the book as the plot unfolds.
It probably goes without saying that I was highly impressed by ‘Outerborough Blues’ as it ticked many of the boxes that I look for in American crime writing and fiction. Being a fan of Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos and Walter Mosley, I would certainly label Andrew Cotto as a comparable read to these luminaries in terms of style, characterisation and its depiction of life in a tough neighbourhood, so what are you waiting for, go find…
Check out Andrew Cotto’s playlist for Outerborough Blues here: http://tinyurl.com/ckcrylw
Andrew Cotto is a writer and teacher who lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author of two novels: The Domino Effect is a coming-of-age story about a kid from Queens with a damaged past and a complicated present at a boarding school in rural New Jersey; Outerborough Blues: A Brooklyn Mystery is an unconventional noir about a drifter seeking a missing person and a remedy to his family’s curse in the dawn of urban gentrification. His novels are represented by Dunow, Carlson and Lerner Literary Agency. Andrew’s articles have appeared in many national journals, including the New York Times, Men’s Journal, Salon, the Good Men Project and Teachers & Writers Magazine. For the past six years, Andrew has taught composition courses and creative writing workshops in New York City. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School and a BA in Literature from Lynchburg College.