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Review: Night Watch, by David C. Taylor
Severn, 2018. 290 pp. $29

At first glance, or even second or third, the crimes seem to lack any connection; after all, this is Manhattan, 1956, and anything can happen. A couple walking through Central Park come face-to-face with a man who threatens them, kill him, and walk away. A man throws himself out the window of the Hotel Astor, and his colleagues, almost shrugging, say he was depressed.

But Detective Michael Cassidy, who knows his native city and what its residents can do to one another, latches on to the details that don’t add up. He refuses to accept the anodyne explanations dished out by unreliable witnesses or the police bureaucracy, overworked and under political pressure from every point of the compass. Before long, the federal government casts its shadow over the investigations, doors close, and odd things happen.

What’s more, a sophisticated, relentless stalker leaves messages promising that he’ll kill Michael at a time and place of his choosing. Michael can’t figure out which criminal he’s put away who would try to take revenge like that.

Like Night Life and Night Work, the two previous thrillers featuring Michael Cassidy (and which bracket the current installment by a few years), this one offers similar pleasures. From the first lines, you have New York City, portrayed as few authors can, capturing the grit, energy, and quirks of an infinitely surprising metropolis. The story begins with horses waiting to pull tourists through Central Park in hansom cabs:

The horses harnessed to carriages at the curb on Columbus Circle huffed smoke from their nostrils as they stood heads down, their backs covered with plaid blankets, and waited for the night-time romantics who wanted to ride through the park bundled under lap robes in private darkness. The shrill wail of a police car siren rose in the west. The horses watched the car pass on 59th Street headed east toward Fifth Avenue, lights flashing. They dropped their heads again to eat hay strewn in the gutter by their drivers. They had been raised on concrete and were used to sirens. In a city of eight million there was always an emergency — someone trapped in an elevator, a restaurant kitchen fire, a domestic dispute, a liquor store stick-up, a body leaking blood across the sidewalk.

The narrative, chronometer-intricate, conveys the fits and starts of criminal investigation, with all the dead ends and improbabilities that Cassidy and his partner sense are built on lies, but against which they can do nothing, for want of evidence. Since Taylor shows you the bad guys at work, the reader knows more than our heroes do. Consequently, the tension derives not just from the “no — and furthermore,” many instances of which involve close combat, but the desire to see justice done — and the fear that the scoundrels will escape because the government protects them.

Unlike the previous two novels, the scoundrels here aren’t J. Edgar Hoover or the Mafia, but Allen Dulles, CIA director. The plot turns on the covert program, much written about in recent years, to test LSD as a “truth serum,” often without the subjects’ knowledge, in the name of national security.

Undated government photo of Allen Dulles (courtesy Prologue Magazine, spring 2002 (NARA, 306-PS-59-17740; via Wikimedia Commons)

Practically no one in the New York of 1956 has heard of this drug or what it can do, which adds to Michael’s difficulties solving the mystery, but the reader will understand, based on the hallucinations several characters suffer. The outrage that the government could inflict this, and with such righteous, cold-blooded cruelty, turns up the narrative heat. Nor is that all. The scientists behind the experiments include Nazi death-camp doctors recruited for their special knowledge about what abuses the human body can stand.

Accordingly, it’s all the more satisfying when Dulles tries to recruit Michael, who bluntly refuses, then, when prodded to admit that he dislikes Dulles, and why, puts it plainly: Michael can’t stand people who tip the table so that everything on it flows toward them. I’m going to remember that phrase.

I don’t believe all of the physical confrontations, at which Michael excels — a trope of the genre, to be sure, yet still implausible. Michael also rescues his beautiful girlfriend (trope number two), a newspaper reporter, though, to be fair, she rescues herself too and is hardly helpless. (Her clothes, especially high heels, cause trouble in the action scenes, a nice touch that underlines the gender straitjacket she struggles to wear as a journalist consigned to “women’s interest” stories.) Michael has a few convenient resources, like a brother who’s a political TV commentator and an aunt who’s a Washington, DC, powerbroker. Finally, despite the ever-present “no — and furthermore,” loose ends get tied up rather neatly.

But I can’t resist these novels — I’ve reviewed all three — and if you read them, maybe you’ll feel the same way.

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