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Review: Night Work, by David C. Taylor
Forge, 2016. 318 pp. $26

Michael Cassidy is a New York City detective who does things his way, which really pisses off a lot of people–like the Mob, the FBI, revolutionaries, counterrevolutionaries, Upper East Side bluebloods, and, oh, yes, his Department superiors. But what the hell, right? He’s very good at solving murders, and in 1959, that means there’s plenty of work to do. More important, it’s rumored he “has juice” or a “rabbi,” which is to say, friends in high places, not least his mobster godfather. (No, not that kind of godfather. A real one.)

Constantino Arias's photo, titled, "The Ugly American," of a tourist in Batista's Havana, 1950s (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain).

Constantino Arias’s photo, titled, “The Ugly American,” of a tourist in Batista’s Havana, 1950s (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain).

Nevertheless, Michael’s wiseass sense of humor pushes the wrong buttons. For instance, when the deputy chief of police demands to know whether the detective harbors “lefty” sympathies, as in, who he voted for in 1956, Michael replies, “Mickey Mantle. He had a good season. Batted three-oh-four, had thirty-nine home runs. I figured it was time for him to move up.” Naturally, that witticism doesn’t sit well.

But what’s bad (or shall we say, “inadvisable”?) for Michael is great fun for the reader. The reason Deputy Chief Clarkson wants to know his politics is because Fidel Castro, having just chased Fulgencia Batista out of Cuba, is paying an ambassadorial visit to New York. As it happens, Michael has been to Havana on police business, where, by the way, he sprang his former lover, Dylan McCue, from prison the day before her scheduled execution. Since many disaffected Cubans and their unsavory American allies (like Meyer Lansky, the mobster) would be happy to assassinate Castro, security will be tight. But will it be tight enough? And is there a Cuban connection to a murder Michael’s investigating on the Upper East Side?

Night Work is the sequel to Night Life and offers many of the same pleasures, though on a broader stage. Taylor writes about power as corrupting, and the Cuban revolution offers plenty of grist. You see it in the graft and brutalities of the Batista regime, which runs the country like a plantation, and in the revolutionaries who execute hundreds in the name of democracy, believing in slogans rather than decency. Compare these two descriptions, first, before the changing of the guard:

Havana was an occupied city, occupied by American tourists dressed in colors never found in nature. The cafés and bars were filled with afternoon drinkers having loud fun. It was an expanded version of the party on the flight over. Here none of the normal rules applied, and when you went home, anything that might smudge your conscience was forgotten, wiped clean by the ninety-mile flight across the water.

And after:

‘I was there,’ the man said and showed him his bandaged forearm proudly. He wore a madras shirt, khaki pants, and sandals, and he had a Thompson submachine gun barrel down on a strap over his shoulder. He wore the fuzzy beginnings of a beard, the new fashion in Havana. . . . .He laughed and offered Cassidy a cigar and insisted he drink from the bottle of rum he pulled from his back pocket, and when the next group of trucks entered the square, he righted his gun and fired a burst into the air.

But New York is still the novel’s core. The author depicts both the seedy corners where bagmen do their dirty work, hoping the big man will reward them, and the fifteenth-story apartments on the Upper East Side with river views, where bigoted, self-important snobs assume that messy problems are for lesser folk. I also enjoy how Taylor portrays Mephistopheles himself, J. Edgar Hoover, making a return cameo from Night Life. The New York idiom too, is always a treat, as with, “There’s a place over on Lex makes great coffee,” or “what I tell all of them come ask about my customers.” That’s writing with an observant ear.

At the risk of repeating myself, I’ll lodge the same complaints against this novel as I did its ancestor. Michael’s a male pheromone factory, and no female seems immune. He doesn’t even have to try, though in this book, one beauty actually ditches him for Paul Newman, if that says anything. Michael does have advanced chemistry going with Dylan, a KGB agent, and I believe that relationship, though I’m less sure about the way she keeps showing up at unexpected moments. It serves the story, which is extremely well plotted, the murder mystery in particular, but, as with some of the derring-do, I have my doubts.

That said, Night Work is enormously entertaining. Even better, the characters all believe in something, which gives depth to what, in other hands, might be merely a colorful, suspenseful novel.

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