Sunday, June 17, 2012

Triple Homicide - Charles J. Hynes

Triple Homicide is Charles Hynes' first novel and has received scant attention (but see New York Times Review,  available at since it was published in 2007.  Those that have written about the novel usually end up writing about Hynes himself, and his "day job."  It states in his author profile that Hynes' has been the District Attorney of Brooklyn for 17 years, so he was elected in 1990.  He still is the D.A. twenty-two years later.

There are six reviews on Amazon, which are, as usual, of varying degrees of intelligence.  However, most of the reviews do mention that the book gives an "insider's look" at the NYPD from 1970 - 1990, and in this respect it is faultless.  Clearly, this is a story that needs to be told, as all of the police departments in major American cities undoubtedly have a fascinating history.  However, it would not be fascinating if they were all just great cops, and it is in the details of the despicable "cyclical" corruption and the "Blue Wall" of silence that protects cops from discovery that makes Triple Homicide an essential read for anyone that (1) wants to be a cop, (2) is already a cop, (3) wants to work for Corporation Counsel and must defend police officers in lawsuits brought against them, (4) wants to be a prosecutor (particularly an ADA in Kings County), (5) wants to be a criminal defense attorney, (6) enjoys reading about "true crime."

However, this is not the type of book that Flying Houses usually reviews (but see TRAIL OF THE DEAD. JON EVANS, available at booans.html).  It is a "pulp" mass-market paperback "page-turner."  But while that may be a bad thing, as I would consider the majority of books in that genre a waste of my time, it is not always a bad thing.  There are high-quality mass-market paperbacks out there, and this is one of them.

While it is somewhat difficult to describe the plot without spoiling anything, certain events and characters may be mentioned.  This is principally the story of 2 cops in the NYPD: Robert Mulvey and Steven Holt.  Robert Mulvey is Steven Holt's uncle, and a role model.  Both of these cops become entrenched in a system of corruption, and though they try to be good cops, they are forced to make certain compromises.  Mulvey works in the late 1960s and has his own controversy which is never spelled out until the end of the novel, which is the right decision.  Holt works in the late 1980s and early 1990s until he is indicted for the murder of three individuals in 1992.

My single greatest complaint about this novel is that it can be extremely confusing.  There are a number of characters that fly in and out of the picture: Captain Nevins, Connolly, Kenny Rattigan (the Queens D.A.), Larry Green, Buddy Cooper (the Brooklyn D.A.), Brendan Moore, Wallace Goss, Scott Ruben, Gabe Perone, Kurland, Pressler, and Meyer Hartwell.

Hartwell only appears in a scene or two, but Hynes' description of him is worth quoting in full, because it is one of the few times that I couldn't help myself from laughing out loud:

"Meyer Hartwell was as unlikely looking a cop as you could imagine.  Short, overweight, and mostly bald, Meyer had grown his black hair as long as he could from the left side of his head and then folded it over to cover the rest of his bald pate.  The effect was an unintended burlesque look.  Meyer had a perpetual crown of perspiration hanging on his forehead.  His distinctive and in certainly no way attractive face brought attention to itself with a large, bushy black mustache flecked with gray and some strange-looking pieces of debris that remained from a recent meal.  His tiny dark and deep-set eyes were obscured by a long, thin nose discolored by popping blue and red veins.  Protruding aimlessly from his nostrils were several strands of nose hair.  Police Officer Hartwell appeared to have selected his uniform each day from the bottom of his closet.  Frayed and always wrinkled, his uniform shirt with the lower two buttons missing hung over a belt forced out by his bulging stomach.  His black shoes were almost gray with scuff marks.  None of this mattered, though, because he had graduated third in his class from the Police Academy, and because of his grades his first commanding officer at a police precinct in the Bronx tapped him to be the 124 man."  (59)

I won't explain what the 124 man does--I'll let you find out if you choose to read this novel, which I would recommend despite the great quantity of characters and the difficulty of keeping everybody's name straight.  That said, there are many characters that are memorable--usually the bad guys.  But the two principal characters won't be confused, and they're the heart of the story.  The "sub-plot" is the internal structure of New York City crime-fighting, and attempts to end police corruption, and this is very interesting stuff, but this is where the names get confusing, and it's tough to tell exactly who is opposing whom unless you go back and verify what each characters does.

So, if I had to review it on Amazon I would give it 4 out of 5 stars because of this issue.  Otherwise, this is a real "page-turner" that just gets better as it goes along.  The last 100 pages flew by for me.

It is perhaps worth noting that I would not have read this book if Charles Hynes had not been my professor for Trial Advocacy.  I like to say that this style as a professor is "Taylorist," that is, he teaches Trial Advocacy as if there is "one best way" to carry out a given task--in this case, 4 tasks: opening statements, direct examination of a witness, cross-examination of a witness, and summations.  In this sense, it is worthwhile to read this book if you are taking this course as well, because the trial scenes are probably the highlights of this book.  Hynes also offers an interesting roadmap for a career for those interested in being a judge, and coming from a person like him, one is bound to respect it as authoritative:

"Kerner was just warming up.  "Then there's the ADAs.  Used to be that a guy would get out of law school, join a political club, usually the Democrats, get a job as an assistant district attorney, and have a law practice on the side.  He'd hustle to make a buck, didn't get nothin' without workin' for it.  The guy knew how much the public wanted law and order, so he'd never break our balls.  He never questioned a cop.  He didn't care that we'd fuck around a little bit--nothin' serious, just enough to get the bad guys off the street.  Then after a few years the ADA would graduate to a job as a judge's law secretary, sort of half an ass-kisser and half a gofer.  And finally, after a while, with a few bucks placed here and there, you know..."
Holt didn't know, but he pretended he did.
"He'd become a judge, and that concluded a fine career.  I used to think that one of my jobs in life was helpin' a young ADA become a judge."  (213-214)

The chapter from which this passage is excerpted is titled "33, East New York, Brooklyn, the 75th Precinct, June 1985," and is the "first lesson" that Steven Holt gets as a new officer straight from the police academy.  This is one of the best chapters in the novel, as Hynes goes on to explore a few interesting cases through the voice of Kerner.  It is an interesting way to look at the law--to have a character that has obvious biases, who seems to be fairly intelligent, and who interprets judicial decisions through their own lens--and I have not seen it done before, so in this respect it opens up a lot of possibilities for writers that have a good knowledge of the law, and can mange to make it fairly interesting for the lay reader.

Hynes does this well, and as I said, my chief criticism of the book is its bevy of characters with indistinguishable features.  It's possible Hynes had written a much longer book that more fully developed the characters and was forced to edit it down, but perhaps I am being picky.  After all, I read this book at intermittent moments from February 2012 - June 2012, and if read in the course of say, one week, which I think is par for the course for a 288-page novel, then the reader is less likely to forget who was who, and generally read the book much more smoothly.  However, I do not think I am the only that would make this complaint about the book, but to a certain degree, this effect is impossible to avoid in a story with so many players.

The quality that this novel brings is "realism."  Once a reader has finished, they will have effectively taken a crash course in the history of the NYPD, and the way it functions in conjunction with other city agencies and city government in general.  Along the way there are a dozen or so intriguing scenes of "true crime," and as mentioned earlier, the trial litigation scenes.  The "lawyering" that is done in this book may not be universally endorsed by Hynes, but you can usually tell from the voice of the narrator when he approves or disapproves of the tactics used in the decisive trial.

Several reviewers on Amazon express their hope that Hynes will offer up a sequel, and he was, at least 6 years ago, working on one.  There is an interesting interview that took place at a Barnes & Noble on Staten Island in June of 2006, and is worth watching for anyone that thinks they might be interested in reading it.  Among the highlights are Hynes' disdain for literary agents, which I could certainly identify with, and his mention of real-life inspirations for the book.  A link to that interview can be be found here:

In short, I agree with those several reviewers, and would certainly read a follow-up to Triple Homicide, not because this is the usual genre of literature that I enjoy (more likely because I was lucky enough to take a class with Hynes), but because it would undoubtedly be a fascinating read from which many lessons can be learned when it comes to operating city government.

Also, Hynes gave me a B+, so I would give this book a B+.

P.S. - Flying Houses will now start annotating everything Blue Book style to show how ridiculous it is.

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