“Buried on Avenue B”
Peter de Jonge
“Shamelessly squeaking the tires, Wawrinka one-hands the Crown Vic through the tight turns of the basement garage.” That evocative little sentence might not be the one Peter de Jonge is most proud of in his new crime novel, “Buried on Avenue B,” but it does the neat trick of communicating fun in triplicate — for the reader, the writer, and the character behind the wheel.
Mr. de Jonge clearly enjoys himself throughout this police procedural, and it makes all the difference. The book is peppered with commentary on the way we live now: “. . . she is reminded that a cineplex is a theater showcasing a long list of movies none of which you want to see.” Greasy food wrappers in the foot well of an abandoned van represent “the major enablers of American obesity.” “Community has become trendy,” someone says of a shared garden plot. “At least in the East Village.”
The East Village is where the story begins, when an addled old junkie and his Caribbean helpmate claim that a hulking black man he killed is buried in that community garden. What’s actually dug up, however, is the body of a blond boy who’s at most 10. As an investigation takes its first methodical steps, we also get something of a Lower East Side travelogue lamenting gentrification.
“Classic dive bars should get landmark status preventing anyone from selling frozen yogurt within fifty feet of them on either side,” says our guide and heroine, Detective Darlene O’Hara. (Wawrinka, the automotive enthusiast, is a tattooed lesbian, half Hawaiian, half Polish, who becomes her sidekick for a time.) New to the homicide squad, O’Hara “considers her privileged access to fringe New York one of the perks of her job, and has never had a boring conversation with a drag queen or trannie.”
In her mid-30s, the detective lives in an apartment in the Bronx, drives a crappy VW Jetta, and wears a Casio on her wrist, but, somewhat less drearily, she’s got lots of red hair and a smattering of freckles, and “buries her ample curves under Clintonian pantsuits and reinforces the dowdy effect with self-administered haircuts and rubber-soled shoes.” Or, through the eyes of one pot-puffing skate punk: “Uncool jeans — check. Uncool hair — check. Uncool shoes — big, fat check.”
If he only knew. O’Hara likes to begin her workday with an 8 a.m. vodka and grapefruit juice at Milano’s, a downtown hole-in-the-wall remarkable for its “ghostly chiaroscuro” and “the studious way” the other regulars “apply themselves to their beverages. . . .” (A fellow detective regularly greets her at the office with a breath mint.)
In that way she’s reminiscent of Matthew Scudder, Lawrence Block’s private investigator, whose first appearance in “The Sins of the Fathers” came as a revelation for the sheer number of pages where he’s simply sitting in bars and coffee shops. O’Hara is equally appealing, if less downbeat. Like Scudder slipping into an empty cathedral, she seeks out quiet places for a respite, to think.
“What does it mean, she wonders, that she now delights in silence . . . and that libraries are up there next to dive bars on her list of favorite places?” Her leads having taken her to the seedy side of Sarasota, Fla., she closes herself in a library’s phone booth and sleeps for 40 minutes.
When it comes to her pursuit of the perps, whether you’re the type to try to anticipate what’s around the next corner or prefer to sit back and take in the parade of lowlifes, the twists are sufficient and surprising and not to be revealed here. Are coincidences worthy of Dickens or John Irving tossed into the plot? Sure, but as the authorial voice reminds us, “a fundamental axiom of investigative work . . . is that there are no coincidences.”
As a writer, Mr. de Jonge has an easy way about him — no seams, no labored descriptions, seemingly no effort. Helped by uniformly short chapters, these might be the fastest 308 pages you’ll read.
The repeated door knocks and interviews with suspects inevitably call to mind the “Law & Order” TV franchise (speaking of the way we live now). But that ingrained model’s pretty irresistible, so is that really a complaint? Police procedurals tap into the same kind of human need for stories and tension and release that sports do — the variety and unexpected outcomes are contained, circumscribed by form, time, rules.
“Buried on Avenue B” is a follow-up to “Shadows Still Remain,” Mr. de Jonge’s first novel after collaborating with James Patterson on two thrillers set out here, “The Beach House” and “Beach Road.” One holdover character is O’Hara’s son, who has dropped out of college on the West Coast and returned home to start a band. She was all of 15 when she had him. The fact that O’Hara is a mother makes her determination to find out what happened to the dead boy that much more intense, of course, but still, this reader would’ve happily done without the 20-something and his band’s shows at the clubs.
Or is that a selfish desire to spend more time alone with Darlene?
Peter de Jonge is a regular visitor to East Hampton. He writes and does research at the East Hampton Library.