Great news for thriller aficionados: Michael Cassidy is on the hunt for criminals once again. David Taylor’s New York detective is back, just as tortured by life and just as unorthodox as he was in “Night Work,” which I reviewed in these pages in 2016. I wrote then that it was the best piece of crime fiction I’d read in years. “Night Watch” is even better.

Cover courtesy of Amazon

Unusually for a series (three so far), “Night Watch” predates its forerunner by several years. The chronological disjuncture, writes Taylor, results from his own “peculiarities,” and “the characters should not be penalized for his failings.” Fair enough. Taylor, who divides his time between Boston and Maine’s midcoast, maintains a gut feeling for his native New York and its historical moments.

The last time we met Michael Cassidy, Fidel Castro was visiting New York in 1959. Now, it’s 1956. The Second World War has been replaced, in the minds of the all-powerful, by the war on Godless Communism. Yesterday’s enemy is today’s bulwark against the Reds. Better to have even the worst Nazis on our side than have them helping the Russians.

This doesn’t sit well with Cassidy. At the end of the war, while serving in the U.S. Army, his platoon came upon a concentration camp. (Taylor describes the hellscape that Cassidy witnessed in grisly detail.) Moreover, the detective’s current girlfriend is a very feisty, Jewish newspaper reporter.

The trail starts with the seemingly random murder of one of the drivers of the horse-drawn carriages that take tourists and lovers around Central Park. As the plot unfolds, it turns out to be not so random after all. Nor are the sudden deaths of two men with the same unknown chemical in their blood. One of them ends up on the sidewalk having gone through a closed window on the sixth floor of a hotel. The other breaks his neck while under the supervision of an American psychiatrist, a CIA operative and an elegant German doctor couple who have earlier demonstrated their fanatical ruthlessness. Michael Cassidy already has his hands full making sense of all this when an unknown psychopath dramatically ups the ante.

Without making a specific connection to the story, a historical note cites the case of a biochemist working for the CIA who was defenestrated from a New York hotel under mysterious circumstances in 1953. (It was recently the subject of a Netflix miniseries.) Nevertheless, Allen Dulles, Eisenhower’s CIA director, makes more than one sinister appearance; he has had an on-and-off affair with Cassidy’s aunt. More gratuitous, but enjoyable nonetheless, is a cameo appearance by another real person, boxing champion Rocky Graziano, whose biopic “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” is about to open:

Cassidy: I hear that Paul Newman guy who’s playing you in the movie’s a lot prettier than you are.
Graziano: Yeah? Well he didn’t get hit in the face as many times as I did.

As it was in “Night Work,” Taylor’s New York is pitch-perfect. The background sounds: a taxi running over a loose manhole cover, a train hissing and screeching to a stop in a subway station. The atmosphere: a saloon’s “dim religious light for the comfort of serious drinkers,” or the daylight that having passed through a boxing gym’s grimy windows “arrived defeated by the struggle.” Yes, we are definitely in noir territory.

Taylor is an unusually vivid raconteur, but the visual detail – be it of a street, a house, or a person – never interrupts the flow. Rather, his characters’ physical attributes help set the scene or mood; their clothes reinforce his impeccable web of period detail at the same time delivering insights into their personae.

As for the genre, he enthusiastically dives into its expected mannerisms: the number of times a phone rings before it is picked up, usually three; the ritual lighting of a cigarette, rasping the match along some rough surface or from a lighter, be it silver, gold, or a Zippo; the parade of the era’s cigarette names: Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, Chesterfield.

All of this provides a gritty context for Taylor’s yarn, which ranges from fashionable Washington to the dingy tenements of New York’s immigrant quarter known as the Alphabets. Mixed in are a formidable array of protagonists and bystanders who keep the action revving and the pages turning. Cassidy may be on the side of the angels, but he is not overly concerned with how the bad guys fall, so long as they do.

To paraphrase the ad for Levy’s rye bread that would soon become a classic in New York’s subways: You don’t have to be a New Yorker to love “Night Watch.”

Thomas Urquhart is an author and conservationist; he is writing a history of Maine’s settlement and the Public Lots. [email protected]


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