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Review: Night Life, by David C. Taylor
Forge, 2015. 332 pp. $26

I have to like Michael Cassidy, a New York detective who throws a cop out a third-story window–the guy needed it–and who, in 1954, at the height of the McCarthy witch hunts, tells Roy Cohn to stick it. For those of you whose grandmothers didn’t wish Roy Cohn a lingering death from throat cancer, as mine did, and have therefore never heard of him, he was Senator Joseph McCarthy’s legal counsel. So within the first ten pages of Night Life, I was already enrolled in the Michael Cassidy fan club and having a good time.

The Army-McCarthy hearings, 1954. McCarthy stands at right; Joseph Welch, opposing counsel, seated, left. (Courtesy U. S. Senate Historical Office)

The Army-McCarthy hearings, 1954. McCarthy stands at right; Joseph Welch, Army counsel, seated, left. (Courtesy U. S. Senate Historical Office)

Cassidy defies expectations in several ways. First, he’s not of Irish ancestry, no matter what the name suggests, and how his father got that name figures in the story. Second, Michael comes from a comfortable, middle-class background (his father’s a successful Broadway producer) and appreciates jazz and modern art. Third, though he’s uptown by birth, there isn’t a pickpocket, madam, or hood he doesn’t know in Hell’s Kitchen or the meat-packing district, and he has a tolerant, persuasive way with them that nets him bits of information.

And that’s what Cassidy needs, because a Broadway dancer has been found tortured to death. Normally, nobody would care. But for some reason, the FBI (“the Feebles”), the CIA, and the Mafia are all interested, and they have ways of declaring their curiosity or punishing those who talk out of turn. Meanwhile, a tough, beautiful woman moves into the apartment downstairs from Michael’s, just the cure for his lonely, broken heart, a person with whom he can share his bed and his troubles.

I like how Taylor portrays his characters, including Michael’s father and siblings–the family scenes are terrific–the theater folk, the political figures (McCarthy, Cohn, J. Edgar Hoover), Michael’s building superintendent, the police. They seem alive to me, and they make the novel hum, even more than the constant reversals or conflicting evidence that Michael must sift through. Best of all, to this transplanted New Yorker, the city feels alive too, in its speech, sights, and smells. I’m so tired of reading about New York from authors who don’t know the place. Taylor does:

A bearded man in a white robe stood on a milk crate at the corner of 49th and tried to interest the hurrying people in the fast-approaching end of the world. The clatter and bong of pinball machines and the whoops of players at the shooting games rattled out the open door of the arcade on 47th. Just past it was a discount store that had been GOING OUT OF BUSINE$$$$ for six years. It sold cheap portable radios, Japanese cameras, World War II surplus equipment, and knives that couldn’t hold an edge at ROCK BOTTOM PRICE$$$$$.

Night Life does suffer from stereotypes, though. Nearly every woman in this book, Cassidy’s sister included, is gorgeous, and she’s just about the only one who doesn’t want to take his clothes off. Michael performs many feats of derring-do, some of which are less than believable, particularly toward the end. Yeah, this stuff belongs to the genre; but still.

Most dubiously, he has dreams that predict danger–correctly, as it turns out. Taylor handles the clairvoyance well enough so that you don’t hear wind chimes or spooky music, yet for a cop who has his feet firmly planted in the grit, it doesn’t quite add up. The ending, too, stretches credulity in a couple ways, not least a loose end–a dangerous loose end–left untied.

Even so, Night Life is just too lively to dismiss. When Michael catches one of the Feebles rifling his desk and tells him to buzz off, the Feeble asks, “Got something to hide, Detective?” To which our man replies, “Pictures of your sister from when I worked Vice.”

Got to love it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.