I wanted to enjoy Lawrence H. Levy’s Brooklyn on Fire. It has all the things I love in a historical detective novel, good period detail with historical figures and events presented with accuracy and attention to detail. It also features an intriguing mystery with many layers of secrets and conspiracies to unfold. Unfortunately, despite a compelling plot and a likable lead character in Mary Handley, female detective, Levy’s lack of faith in the reader made this a frustrating and, at times, irritating book to read.
One of the maxims of writing is that authors should show, not tell. Now that is not always true, there are times when telling moves the story along faster or draws readers more deeply into identifying with one character or another. Levy tells instead of shows constantly, without need and with no other reason than a distrust of his readers.
Levy needs a new editor, one that will shake him out of bad and lazy writing habits. Now, I read an uncorrected proof, so there will be changes, but they will be typos and syntax errors. The kind of editing he needs has already passed by. Let me give some specific examples.
Abigail, an actress who too thoroughly adopts the acting technique of living her character all the time, letting her character inhabit her completely is auditioning for the role of Nora in The Dolls’ House. By now, we know that she gets angry and upset if someone uses her real name. She tells the director her name is Nora Helmer. Her acting is perfection and the director hires her.
“This is what this theater needs to make a real splash,” he thought, “a fresh approach.” Little did he know that Abigail was more than fresh. She was at best deluded and quite possibly insane.
Please! We already know this from the story and her behavior. We do not need the author stepping in from behind the curtain and cluing us in.
In a worse example, one where the book got put down for a few hours while I dithered between closing it forever or giving it a second chance, Shorty, the bad guy is checking out the scene of his previous crime. We know he is a bad guy because his entire history since childhood has just been explicated with patently obvious tropes of poverty, neglect, and abuse leading to violence and crime. He sees the detective has found a button loose at the crime scene, a button that is out of place and possibly a clue.
“I better keep an eye on this Handley kid,” he thought. “He’s not as stupid as most cops.” As he started to put distance between himself and the house, he felt his coat. He had wondered where he had lost that button. Now he knew.
That landed like an authorial rimshot. An author who wanted to show us could have done something more subtle like saying “Shorty shadowed Sean as he made his way home from the scene. When Sean jumped on the streetcar, Shorty got on at the rear and watched his quarry, fingering the place on his jacket where his button was missing.” That’s just a suggestion. There are dozens of ways Levy could show us instead of slapping us upside the head and announcing it.
Some people do not object to authors who tell everything and they will be pleased with the book. The mystery is fair and satisfyingly complex. It is fun and interesting to see real life people who are fictionalized and see how different people imagine them. Mary Handley was a real person and she did solve the murder that occupies the first volume in this mystery series. Even the mysteries and the conspiracies that are the foundation on which this novel is built are all real events for that time period. That gives the story so much more potential for enjoyment.
For me, this was a disappointing mystery because this writer tells too much. I just wish he trusted his readers because understanding the characters by their words and actions without an omniscient explication of their motives and desires is how we are drawn into the book. Reading should be interactive, not passive. Levy took all the space, telling us too much, putting road signs along the road. He gave us no path to fall into the book.
I was provided a free copy of this book by Random House through the early reviewer program at LibraryThing.