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Hammetting it Up

Book Review: A Time Gone By by William Heffernan


Published June 25, 2003 at 2:46 p.m.

William Heffernan's latest pulp novel, A Time Gone By, is best described as dependable summer reading. I mean beach reading, casual reading -- not-quite-paying-attention reading. The author's publicity describes A Time Gone By as "a taut, sexy thriller" in the style of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, which is both true and not true of this book. True because Heffernan, like all American detective writers, owes a large debt to the original masters of the genre. False because you can't write like Chandler or Hammett anymore without sounding like an imitation or a parody. And I don't think that's what Heffernan wants.

Heffernan, a Vermont author who lives in Huntington, is a bold, thumping, vigorous writer with 16 books under his belt. These include The Corsican, The Dinosaur Club (a New York Times best-seller), five or six mysteries featuring an NYPD homicide detective, Paul Devlin, and Beulah Land, an unusual and highly praised novel about racial tension in Vermont.

As a former reporter for the New York Daily News, Heffernan was nominated three times for the Pulitzer Prize and, in 1996, he won the mystery genre's highest honor, the Edgar Allan Poe Award, for his novel Tarnished Blue. To some extent, his books are all based on his earlier career covering crime in the Big Apple, just as Chandler wrote for newspapers before he wrote novels and Hammett, especially, drew on his experience as a Pinkerton's detective in San Francisco before creating his unforgettable heroes, Sam Spade and The Continental Op.

In his author's photograph, Heffernan even looks like Dashiell Hammett -- white-haired, weary, rock-jawed and craggily handsome. There's no doubt he knows what he's doing when he writes about crime, criminals, murders, mayhem, babes, broads, flatfeet and scum, at both the high and low ends of the procedural pole. He also has a penchant for weepy wives, foreign floozies and good men gone bad for the sake of a dame. He is, in short, a man's writer -- no, a male writer -- and he takes his tales very seriously indeed. "Writing for me is an opportunity to explore the human soul, " Heffernan says on Simon & Schuster's Web site, "to climb into the minds and hearts of characters I create, characters upon whom I thrust problems that threaten to corrupt their way of life, their very sense of being."

This is the thrust -- in fact, the whole point -- of A Time Gone By. The plot is simple enough, involving a New York City police detective, Jake Downing, wounded in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, who, as a rookie cop in 1945, investigates the murder of a powerful, crime-fighting judge, dead in his East Side townhouse from multiple blows to the head with his gavel. This judge had political aspirations -- he wanted to be Governor of New York -- and while Jake and his tough-guy, wise-guy, red-haired Irish police partner, Jimmy Finn, probe for the killer or killers, Jake finds himself caught up not only in a mystery, but a web of corruption at the highest levels of New York City politics and organized crime. He also finds himself drawn to, and quickly in bed with, the judge's youthful widow, Cynthia, a former hat-check girl at the Stork Club and a breathless beauty whose charms and connivance he is helpless to resist.

"I watched her throughout the wake and thought I'd never seen a woman more beautiful in mourning," Jake explains: "She was dressed entirely in black, a delicate hat on her head, its veil concealing her face. There was a lace handkerchief clutched in one gloved hand, and occasionally she brought it up beneath the veil, as if dabbing tears from her eyes. I couldn't help wondering if the tears were real, or if they existed at all. There were no sobs. None of the movements you'd expect, the slight tremors that always accompany a woman's tears."

There you have all you need to know about the Black Widow, the inevitable femme fatale, at the heart of A Time Gone By. Jake will keep on wondering about Cynthia's tears, her motives and integrity, throughout the unraveling of her husband's murder and beyond -- in this case, way beyond, since Heffernan tells his story in two frames of time. The first is "contemporary," set in the 1940s at the time of the murder and the original investigation. The second is 30 years later, when Jake, now NYPD Chief of Detectives, decides to reopen the case, knowing that the man convicted of the judge's death, a small-time hood named Louis Grosso, was sent to Sing-Sing and the electric chair on false evidence, framed by a corrupt Democratic Party boss over a shady land deal involving the murdered judge, his slimy cronies and a First Avenue slaughterhouse on the future site of the United Nations.

Jake's conscience has haunted him ever since, not because Grosso died for the wrong crime -- "Louie Grosso ain't exactly the kind of guy I'm gonna sit down and spill some tears over," says Jake's partner, Jimmy Finn -- but because he, Jake, knew that he did and said nothing at the time, and even accepted a promotion at Grosso's expense.

There's more, of course, but not a lot more. A Time Gone By isn't a thriller, or even a mystery, so much as the record of a good man's effort to set things right, salving the wounds of his own remorse. It's now 1975, the age of Patty Hearst, Squeaky Fromme and the Daily News' banner headline: "Ford to City: Drop Dead!" But not enough is made in contrasting these separate eras. You know right away who paid for the judge's death and that this payment was unjust. You know that Jake's marriage to his good-hearted, Catholic high school sweetheart, Mary, eight months pregnant in 1945, was ruined over Jake's affair with Cynthia. You know that, ever after, Mary and Jake slept in separate beds, and that their daughter Kate, born while Jake enjoys his last, sweaty sex with "Cyn" -- get it? -- can't understand her mother's alienation. You know that Jake will find a kind of redemption, even happiness, after Mary's death, in the love of Molly Reagan, a Dana Scully-like forensic pathologist, and that Jake and Cynthia will meet up again with resounding and, for Jake, unsettling consequences.

You even know, if you think about it, who really killed the judge, just as you know that Jake's partner Jimmy will always talk tough, always be a bachelor and will always insert the word "fookin'" into every conversation. Or worse: "One of the commissioner's lackeys nailed my ass... Hauled me straight up to the PC's office, where I got reamed so hard my rosy red Irish asshole almost lost its virginity."

And there's the problem -- Chandler and Hammett never wrote like this. Hammett, in fact, got in a pile of trouble when he published The Thin Man in 1934 and actually had Nora Charles ask her husband, Nick, if the sight of another woman had given him an erection. Heffernan, writing about two historical eras -- the '40s and the '70s -- does it in the style of our own time, a sex-soaked wasteland of smut and vulgarity that only gets thicker as the novel goes on. Some-thing is always threatening some man's dick, balls and asshole in this book; Jake is forever "growing" in his pants and "getting hard," and the women -- well, if this is how Heffernan thinks about women, he's out of time altogether.

"Nobody's ever made me feel like you do, Jake," Cynthia says, sincerely or not, and Jake is just dumb enough to believe it: "There was no question I'd become 'full of her,' as my mother and her cronies used to say ... 'taken' with her; that was another one. Or was I just being taken? For a ride, maybe."

By the time Louis Grosso, in a judge's chambers, forces Cynthia to give him a blow job and she nearly bites off his penis, I was clutching my own with some trepidation. Maybe it's the heat, or maybe it's the way these books are supposed to read. As Heffernan writes, "I guess it proved the old adage that the fastest sperm wasn't necessarily the brightest in the load."

So take A Time Gone By to the beach, like I said. Scuff it up a little and make sure some suntan oil gets stuck on its pages. You can pretend it's some other kind of stain, if you want. Heffernan does, it seems, all the way to the bank.