Monday, June 22, 2015

Midtown North

Midtown North, by Mike Curtis
No month stated, 1976  Leisure Books

Credited to the same author as The Savage Women, Midtown North is clearly the work of another person; as I mentioned in my Savage Women review, we know from here that it was a guy named Myer Kutz who wrote Midtown North.

The novel is also an interesting case study in how Leisure Books would market their publications. The back cover copy, which I’m betting was written by Leisure editor Peter McCurtin, proclaims “Murder” in all caps, beneath which we are presented with the synopsis of a lurid-sounding plot about the “savage murders” of “young women.” Likewise, the ads for Midtown North in other Leisure Books of the day talked up the novel’s exploitative content, mentioning in particular how these “murders” were so repugnant as to make veteran cops sick.

My friends, Midtown North turns out to be a slow-moving character study of an older cop, Detective Ed Doherty, who works the Upper West Side of Manhattan, aka “Midtown North.” Rather than “murders” it’s “murder” in the singular, and rather than the outrageous, lurid elements hinted at on the back cover and in the advertisements the young gal is simply smothered by a pillow. I mean, not that this makes the act okay, but still – indeed, her murder comes off as almost accidental for the most part. But none of the exploitative aspects are present in the novel itself, which honestly could’ve been published by any other outfit than Leisure.

Rather than the hurried-off burst of sleaze expected from the imprint, Midtown North instead takes its time with developing its central protagonist and the case he’s currently working. There aren’t even any arbitrary “action scenes” to speed up the narrative. It’s just a police procedural based on solid research; Kutz even thanks the police of Manhattan’s Fifth Homicide Zone for their assistance with the book. The novel is filled with cop world details, Kutz leavening the tale with stories and complaints he’s picked up from the members of the NYPD he met with.

The poor young woman who is murdered goes without a name for most of the novel; when we meet her she’s drinking wine and eating cheese with some man (also not named) in her apartment on the Upper West Side. They put records on the turntable (lots of detail here about her high-quality turntable and stereo system, which I really enjoyed) and dance, and the guy thinks the girl is coming on to him when she starts rubbing her pelvis and thighs against him. But when he tries to take off her clothes she pushes him away. He snaps, and first is about to rape her, then instead jams a pillow cushion over her face and smothers her.

A few days later the landlord of the apartment building discovers a decomposing human body hidden on the top of the elevator. Doherty and his obese partner, Joseph Belotti, are called onto the scene. These two are true cops, not the photogenic types seen in movies of today, and again one can tell that Kutz has based his characters on his research. Doherty is the star of the piece, though, and he’s sort of a broken shell, his wife Brenda having left him six months ago. Doherty has been on the force for some unspecified length of time and wonders if he is losing his mind.

Doherty, unlike other cops in his precinct, actually lives in Midtown North. He’s watched as the area has went to hell over the past few decades (the back cover copy, again, oversells it, making it sound like a warzone), the affluent original residents being replaced by very noisy Puerto Ricans. The noise is what is driving Doherty insane, and caused his wife to leave him; Doherty resents the constant music the Puerto Ricans blast from the sidewalks outside of his apartment, and has resorted to various costly noise-suppressing countermeasures.

In addition to his own high-quality stereo equipment, Doherty also has these noise machines he’ll switch on to block out noises from the street, as well as sound-blocking curtains. Only, none of it works, and Doherty has become almost obsessive about the noise of the Puerto Ricans. This all reminded me of myself and my neighbor’s goddamn yapping little dog, which barks all the time. Note to all – those stupid little ultrasonic bark stopper things do NOT work on Jack Russell Terriers. I’ve found this out the hard way. (However the dog has become so scared of me that it immediately stops yapping as soon as I step out onto my back porch.)

The novel is more about Doherty than the case. It’s also filled with anecdotes about the trials and tribulations detectives would encounter in New York in the 1970s. It is as mentioned more of a character portrait thing so there is no action for the most part. In fact Doherty in all his years has only pulled his .38 twice, let alone ever shot anyone. But curiously for a character portrait there’s really no buildup or payoff; I thought Doherty would reunite with his wife or come to some sort of resolution, but none of that happens.

Instead, Kutz builds up a last-second deal where Doherty begins to identify with the murderer. This is exactly what Len Levinson did in Without Mercy, but Len did it better, mostly because he had more room to play with – Midtown North is a mere 156 pages. This means that characters and subplots disappear with no warning; Doherty’s partner Belotti, for example, just abruptly drops out of the narrative and doesn’t return. So do several minor characters, all of whom live in the building in which the girl’s murdered body was discovered.

Still operating on that real-life vibe, Kutz has Doherty find out the killer through good old police work. Also he nicely brings in Doherty’s audiophile nature; Doherty is a classical music buff, with a few thousand LPs. This interest provides the lead to who the killer is, as Doherty spots a record in the dead girl’s collection that surely wasn’t hers, and perhaps was placed there by the killer. By this time he’s discovered that the girl had the unusual name of Michael and was a recent divorcee who was staying temporarily in one of the apartments, thus she wasn’t one of the tenants and was therefore unknown to the owner, etc.

Doherty deduces that one of the tenants was the murderer, and again this is deduced via his fondness for music. But since he has no evidence Doherty begins visiting the guy for friendly chats, to try to instill some fear in him. Here the “Without Mercy” stuff comes into play, as Doherty finds that this dude too has a room filled with noise-blocking curtains and hi-fi audio equipment, all with which to block out the noise of the street. Also the guy, obviously, has problems with women, hence Doherty’s last-second “I’m identifying with a murderer” worries.

The briefest of action scenes serves as the finale, as Doherty takes the killer on an impromptu tour of the building, Doherty blithely telling the killer how he, Doherty, thinks the killer stashed the girl’s body with no one seeing him. This leads to a quick scuffle in which Doherty finally fires his gun, but it’s very anticlimactic and indeed the final image we’re given is of a victorious Doherty standing in his lieutenant’s office and trying to hide his tears. Why? Because of that murderer-identification aspect, of course, which I have to say rings hollow.

Not that it much matters, as here Midtown North ends, and as far as I’m aware Kutz never published another novel. While it was a bit slow-moving at times and more focused on thoughts and feelings than on action, Midtown North was still enjoyable for its period details, with squalid ‘70s Manhattan brought fully to life.

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