I revisit an author whose book intrigued me a great deal, as he manages to combine very different elements and make them function incredibly well somehow.
Outerborough Blues: A Brooklyn Mystery by Andrew Cotto
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 lone wolf named Caesar Stiles with a chip on his shoulder 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.
Taking place over the course of a single week, Outerborough Blues is a tightly paced and gritty urban noir saturated with the rough and tumble atmosphere of early 1990s Brooklyn.
Andrew Cotto has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times, Men’s Journal, Salon.com, Teachers & Writers magazine and The Good Men Project. He has an MFA in creative writing from The New School. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Andrew Cotto is an award-winning author and a regular contributor to The New York Times. He has written for Parade, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone, La Cucina Italiana, AARP, Rachael Ray In Season, Maxim, The Huffington Post, the Good Men Project, Salon, Conde Nast Traveler, Italy magazine and more. Andrew has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
I discovered Andrew Cotto through Rosie’s Book Review Team a few months ago, when I read and reviewed his novel Black Irish Blues. A Caesar Stiles Mystery, which I loved even (or because) I found it difficult to pin down to a specific genre. Although it was stylistically a noir mystery/thriller, I thought it also shared some of the characteristics of the cozy mysteries: pretty special/peculiar/singular characters; a main protagonist that is not your standard cool, slick, and tough guy (Caesar Styles is pretty cool and fairly tough, but he tries to go unnoticed rather than advertise those characteristics); and a sizeable part of the novel being dedicated to a hobby/job/talent… of the protagonist that sometimes might be related to the mystery, although mostly marginally. In this case, the protagonist works as a cook, and he seems to be pretty talented at it as well, and he regales us with mouth-watering descriptions of meals and dishes throughout the novel. I was fascinated by this unusual combination of seemingly diverse parts and how the author managed to bring them together. And I was intrigued as well because although the story could be read independently, I became aware that a previous novel with the same protagonist had been published years back, and there were a few enticing references to what had happened before that left me wanting more. Unfortunately, at that time, the first novel was only available as a paperback, and it was not easy to get hold of.
However, the author informed me that the first novel in the series would be available in e-book format and kindly sent me an ARC copy, which I freely chose to review.
So, this is how I came to read the first novel in this series after the second. This has happened to me more than once, and although I might have got hints of what had happened before, in general, I have enjoyed checking if I was right and filling all the gaps. And yes, this is one of those occasions.
I went through a detailed summary of my thoughts about Black Irish Blues, not only because being concise is not my forte, but also because much of what I thought and said about that novel applies here as well.
Although the novel is set in the 1990s, there are clear indicators of the social era, and the author manages to convey a very strong sense of the Brooklyn of that period, warts and all, there is also something atemporal about the novel. The descriptions of the traumatic events of Caesar’s childhood are, unfortunately, universal and timeless (bullying and domestic violence, a father who leaves the home and a mother bringing up her sons on her own, a tragedy and a life-changing decision), but there are also details reminiscent of the Depression: runaways (a boy in this case) hopping on trains, living in the streets, a wanderer learning as he goes and living off-the-grid, and others much more modern (drug wars, property speculation, a neighbourhood whose social make-up is changing and where racial tensions reflect a wider state of affairs, changes in the notions of family, loyalty, tradition…).
And despite the noir vibe and set-up (down to the mystery that gets Caesar into all kinds of troubles: a foreign [French] young girl enters the bar where he works and asks for his help in finding her missing brother. He is an artist who came to New York to study and has now disappeared) reminiscent of classical noir novels and films of the 1940s and 50s, there is also something very modern in the way the story is told. In noir films, flashbacks and a rather dry, witty, and knowing voice-over were typical narrative devices and a sparkling and sharp dialogue was a trademark of the genre in writing as well. Here, Caesar tells his story in the first person, but this is not a straightforward narrative. The story is divided up into seven days and told in real-time, but the protagonist spends much of the novel remembering the past, reflecting upon things that had happened to him before, and we even witness some of his dreams (hopeful ones, but also those that rehearse the past), so anybody expecting a fast-paced, no spare-details-allowed kind of narrative, will be disappointed. For me, the way the story is told is one of its strengths, and there are incredibly beautiful moments in the book (Caesar is a poet at heart), although there are also some pretty violent and ugly things going on, and Caesar is the worse for wear by the end of the story. (And no, that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the ending). There is something pretty intimate and personal about the way the story is told, and we get privileged access to the protagonist’s subjectivity, thoughts, and feelings, that is not typical of the classic noir genre (dark things in the past might be hinted at, but they are hardly ever looked at in detail or studied in depth. The answer to most questions can be found in the barrel of a gun).
I was looking for some information in E. Ann Kaplan’s Women in Film Noir (somewhat old now, but excellent) and a comment she made about Klute and Chinatown (some later films that fit into the noir category) rang true for me. She mentioned that both of these films seemed to show a “European” sensibility and style different to that o many of the other American crime films of the same era, and that got me thinking, as Chinatown kept popping in my head as I read this book (although Chinatown is far more classically noir than this novel), perhaps because of the subject of property speculation, of the amount of violence visited upon and endured by the protagonist, of the intricate maze of clues, illegal acts, false identities, hidden interests and influences, and secrets that fill its pages… And, considering the protagonist’s Italian origin, and the fact that the story of his grandmother opens the novel, it all seemed to fit. Although the sins of the father might be visited upon the son as well, here, the sins are those from previous generations and keep being revisited upon the members of the family left alive.
In some ways, the mystery (or mysteries, as others come to light once Caesar starts investigating and unravelling the story strand) is not the most important part of the book. At first, I thought Jean-Baptist played a part somewhat akin to Hitchcock’s concept of a MacGuffin, an excuse to get the story going, to set our character off on a quest, we learn very little about him throughout the book, and he is never given a voice or an opportunity to explain himself (we only hear other people’s opinions about him), but later I decided he was a kind of doppelgänger, a double or a mirror image of Caesar, somebody also trying to run away to find himself and to find a place where he can fit in, although, of course, this can only be achieved when one is at peace with oneself, and the protagonist reaches the same conclusion. I don’t want to go into a lot of detail about the ending, but let’s say that Caesar manages to put to good use his connections and to trade off good information in exchange for settling some family issues that had been hanging over him for a long time. He is not overly ambitious and although he has a sense of right and wrong and morality, he does not play the superhero and knows that some things will only be sorted out by time, and others perhaps never. But he had to attune and reach his internal peace, and that, he does.
Rather than a review, this seems to be a mash-up of a few somewhat interconnected thoughts, but I hope it gives you an idea of why I enjoyed the novel. There is plenty of wit, great descriptions, a tour-de-force banquet towards the end of the book, fabulous dialogue, and beautifully contemplative moments. I will share a few snippets, but I recommend checking a sample if you want to get a better idea of if you’d like his style or not.
At the entrance stood a large security guard who looked like he had swallowed a smaller security guard.
I was in the Mediterranean, floating in the warm water of my ancestors. I rose and fell in the hard green sea, salt in my nose and sun on my face, my fanned hair like a cape behind me. Fishing boats were moored to a nearby jetty, and brilliant white birds circled in the swimming pool sky.
Oh, and, the beginning of the book has joined my list of the best openings of a novel:
My mother’s mother came to this country in the usual way —she got on a boat with other immigrants and sailed from Sicily. She wasn’t one of them, however: neither tired nor poor or part of any huddled mass. Instead, she traveled alone, with her money in one sock and a knife in the other, coming to the new world with an old world motive— to murder the man that had left her for America.
Don’t worry. We get to know what happened, but, if you need more of a recommendation, this is it: the rest of the novel lives up to its beginning. So, go on, read it, and I’m sure you’ll read Black Irish Blues next. Enjoy.
Thanks to the author for this book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, and especially, keep safe and keep smiling. ♥